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The Racial Discourses of Life Philosophy

The Racial Discourses of Life Philosophy: Négritude, Vitalism, and Modernity

Copyright Date: 2010
Pages: 240
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  • Book Info
    The Racial Discourses of Life Philosophy
    Book Description:

    In the early twentieth century, the life philosophy of Henri Bergson summoned the élan vital, or vital force, as the source of creative evolution. Bergson also appealed to intuition, which focused on experience rather than discursive thought and scientific cognition. Particularly influential for the literary and political Négritude movement of the 1930s, which opposed French colonialism, Bergson's life philosophy formed an appealing alternative to Western modernity, decried as "mechanical," and set the stage for later developments in postcolonial theory and vitalist discourse.

    Revisiting narratives on life that were produced in this age of machinery and war, Donna V. Jones shows how Bergson, Nietzsche, and the poets Leopold Senghor and Aimé Césaire fashioned the concept of life into a central aesthetic and metaphysical category while also implicating it in discourses on race and nation. Jones argues that twentieth-century vitalism cannot be understood separately from these racial and anti-Semitic discussions. She also shows that some dominant models of emancipation within black thought become intelligible only when in dialogue with the vitalist tradition. Jones's study strikes at the core of contemporary critical theory, which integrates these older discourses into larger critical frameworks, and she traces the ways in which vitalism continues to draw from and contribute to its making.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-51860-4
    Subjects: Philosophy, Sociology, Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-viii)
  3. INTRODUCTION: The Resilience of Life
    (pp. 1-26)

    We live in a biological age. The ecological crisis has heightened our sensibilities of the intrinsic value of the life of all species and encouraged the development of a biocentric ethics. From a different angle, the ability to generate synthetic acellular life and to prolong the life of a brain-dead human being presents us with new examples of bare life and again raises the question of just what life inescapably is.¹ The question is not only a philosophical problem, as decisions about whether to prolong or terminate life depend on how we understand what life is and what expressions such...

  4. CHAPTER ONE On the Mechanical, Machinic, and Mechanistic
    (pp. 27-56)

    Jacques Hymans, the author of perhaps the richest history of the intellectual influences on Senghor, has shown that Bergson and the Catholic mystic inspired by him, Charles Péguy, gave Senghor the critical framework in which to question “the ability of the capitalist, individualist and mechanized West to solve its own problems, especially after the 1929 ‘crash.’ ”¹ Both the West and its colonies understood the crisis of the interwar years as a metaphysical crisis of a cold, bloodless, and mechanical civilization. A comparison of lyrical passages from the German philosopher Max Scheler and the founder of Négritude is quite suggestive....

  5. CHAPTER TWO Contesting Vitalism
    (pp. 57-76)

    I begin this general survey of some vitalist and antivitalist ideas with this passage,¹ already quoted in the introduction, for Schnädelbach articulates concisely the truths for which the Lebensphilosophs struggled. In this chapter, I shall discuss briefly some of the major voices in defense of vitalism, Nietzsche, Simmel, and Deleuze, as well as two important critics, the young Max Horkheimer and the older Georg Lukács. While I shall express skepticism of vitalism, I shall also argue against Lukács’ dogmatic reaction. In my opinion, Horkheimer’s sympathetic critique gets it just about right, but it is tragic as well, because even Horkheimer...

  6. CHAPTER THREE Bergson and the Racial Élan Vital
    (pp. 77-128)

    While Driesch’s entelechy arose out of the mystery of embryological development (how like produces like, how a horse begets a horse and not a rabbit), Henri Bergson’s vitalist principle was said to underlie the creative unfolding of the multitudinous forms of life. Bergson’s critique was thus aimed just as much against mechanism, the idea that sufficient computational power made the future predictable from given, initial conditions, as it was against finalism or teleology, which rendered process as fully determinate and predictable as mechanism. As much as Bergson appreciated Driesch’s experimental proofs of the putative breakdown of mechanism and the model...

  7. CHAPTER FOUR Négritude and the Poetics of Life
    (pp. 129-178)

    If the Dutchman Baruch de Spinoza was the marrano of reason, hiding his rationalism, then the Martinican Aimé Césaire was the African of Life, openly affirming his existential vitalism in the face of centuries of humiliation and degradation and in response to the reduction of black humanity in juridical terms to lifeless means of production, to a mere instrumentum vocale. There is little less surprising than the vitalism of the enslaved, and it is certainly not a mystery that a volcanically aggressive and liberating voice emerged from Martinique, which, as Michel Rolph Trouillot has noted, imported more slaves than all...

  8. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 179-180)
  9. Notes
    (pp. 181-216)
  10. Index
    (pp. 217-232)