"A Brief Analysis of Social Analysis and
a Social Analysis of Cornel West's Contributions"
by Theodore Walker, Jr.
a 20 March 1997 presentation to the Annual Meeting of the Society for the Study of Black Religion in Dayton, Ohio, under the umbrella theme--"Who We Are: Color, Race and the Politics of the Academy."
For the purpose of this presentation the "we" in our reflection on "who we are" means we the members of the Society for the Study of Black Religion, and more generally, "we" means we black folk engaged in the academic study of black religion.
And we black folk engaged in the academic study of black religion are a subset of a still more inclusive we--we black academics engaged in our various academic studies.
In reference to the more general question, Who are we black academics? and What is our purpose?, I know of no one who has thought more deeply and published more variously on the subject than our colleague and society member--Cornel West.
Accordingly, much of what I shall offer here-now is directly indebted to reflection on work by Cornel West. To be sure, this presentation consist in large part of analysis of Cornel West's reflection on the identities and responsibilities of black academics.
Prior to presenting my social analysis of Cornel West, I shall offer a brief analysis of social analysis, thereby revealing the method by which I analyze the work of Cornel West.
Accordingly, there are two main parts:
(1) a brief analysis of social analysis, and
(2) a social analysis of West's contributions to answering our question.
(1) a brief analysis of social analysis:
Social science, like other academic science, presupposes a metaphysical truth about time and temporal distinctions--namely this: The present is partly determined by the past and partly determinative of the future.
Given this metaphysical truth, any social-historical description of the past is understood to have partly determinative implications for the present; and, any sociological description of the present is understood to have partly determinative implications for the future. Hence, all social scientific descriptions have at least implicit predictive power.
Accordingly, social ethical analysis has these distinct elements: interpretative themes, populations/circles of concern, descriptions, predictions, visions (alternative predictions), and prescriptions. Each of these overlapping elements are permeated by values and value judgments.
Interpretative themes are selected based upon value judgments about what is important and good (or bad) and worthy (or unworthy) of attention. Fundamental value judgments lead us to interpret the world in terms of selected aspects, features, typologies, and themes.
Social sciences and social ethics are studies pertaining to selected populations or circles of concern. Usually selected human populations are identified by time, by geographic space, and by topological distinctions such as tribal, ethnic and national identities.
Social scientific descriptions are descriptions of present circumstances, or more precisely, descriptions of very recent circumstances, and descriptions of historical circumstances contributing to recent and present circumstances.
That part of social science which describes the past and the past's contributions to the present is usually called history.
That part of social science which describes the present, or more precisely, the very recent past, is usually called sociology.
Sociology, insofar as it is a science rather than a mere academic account of the "news," goes beyond simply reporting recent and old news.
In addition to offering descriptions of the present and of the past's contributions to present events, sociology offers predictions.
Social scientific predictions are about probable future circumstances following from present and past trends.
Social ethics reaches beyond social science by including explicit and sustained attention to formulating social ethical and public policy prescriptions.
Social ethical prescriptions concern what should (ought) be done to make favorable differences to the probable future.
Social ethical prescriptions are often guided by heavily value-laden visions of an alternative and more righteous future.
These visions of an alternative more righteous future are partly visions of the differences being and doing as prescribed will make, and partly visions of differences to be made by other favorable influences.
And of course all social ethical reflection is founded upon the metaphysical presupposition that being-becoming-doing differently makes at least some difference, and upon the metaethical presupposition that we ought to prefer some differences over others, namely, we ought to prefer making righteous differences--differences contributing to the good, to shared well-being.
(2) a social analysis of West's contributions
to answering our question about our identity and purpose:
In accordance with our methodical commitment to social ethical analysis, Let us observe that our subject--Who We Are, Color, Race and the Politics of the Academy-- stipulates an attempt to interpret who we are in terms of color, race, politics and academic responsibility.
And to be sure, it is commitment to these interpretive themes which recommends attention to Cornel West because he frequently interprets who we are in just these themes: color, race, politics, and academy.
Students and critics of Cornel West know there is more to his work than can be encompassed in a brief presentation of this kind, and therefore I trust you will forgive me for reducing his variously rhythmic-polyphonic-antiphonal-kinetically-oral-spritually-syncopated-multi-dimensional complexities to a few simple descriptive lines. And I hope this is not a reduction to the absurd.
In any event, our interpretive themes--race, color, politics, academy--are frequently West's themes.
And in regard to our selected circle of concern, the present population of black academics, West offers the following account of our present circumstance:
According to West, the history of modern African-American existence must be told in terms of "black political and cultural practices--especially the black freedom movement and black musical production" (p170 of "Postmodernity and Afro-America").
According to West, we are called to describe our past in terms of "black political and cultural practices--especially the black freedom movement and black musical production" (Ibid.).
Again, quickly and simply (perhaps too quickly and too simply), West describes our present circumstance in terms of crisis, a crisis of leadership, a crisis of political and economic structural oppressions, and most recently in RACE MATTERS, a crisis of nihilism. (See "Nihilism in Black America" in RACE MATTERS.)
West understands nihilism as "the lived experience of coping with a life of horrifying meaninglessness, hopelessness, and (most important) lovelessness" (RMp14).
Nihilism is life without meaning, without hope, without love in a "culture of consumption" (RMp16).
This "eclipse of hope and collapse of meaning" is described as "the nihilistic threat" to the survival of black America (RMp17).
Given this present threat of nihilism which characterizes so much of our contemporary existence and popular culture, the clearly implied and explicated prediction is, if we fail to meet this treat, if we continue living without hope, meaning and love; then our future well-being and our very survival is in serious jeopardy.
This is an exceedingly unfortunate future, and we black academicians and intellectuals and aspiring intellectuals are called to meet this threat by demystifying the past and generating "a vision of moral regeneration and political insurgency" (RMp46).
In other words, we are called to change the future from what is predicted as the probable tragic outcome of continuing with recent and present trends to some alternative more favorable future.
And we are called to contribute to the realization of a more favorable and more righteous future by demystifying present mythologies and present regimes of truth and creating visions of an alternative more righteous future under a new regime of truth. [ "regime of truth" is from "The Dilemma of the Black Intellectual" in KEEPING FAITH: PHILOSOPHY AND RACE IN AMERICA (Routledge: New York, 1993) by Cornel West (p82).]
Now, How do we black academics do this? West offers several prescriptions for changing the future.
Among others, in RACE MATTERS, West prescribes more serious scholarly dialogue about the taboo subject--black sexuality. (See "Black Sexuality: The Taboo Subject" in RACE MATTERS.)
In his descriptions of the past's contributions to our present sexual crisis, West observes that part of our problem with sexuality emerges from the failure of black churches to deal with black sexuality.
West says: "... black families, churches, mosques, schools, fraternities, and sororities. These precious black institutions ... these grand yet flawed black institutions refused to engage one fundamental issue: black sexuality. Instead, they ran from it like the plague. And they obsessively condemned those places where black sexuality was flaunted: the streets, the clubs, and the dance-halls." (p86 of RACE MATTERS)
"... most black churches shunned the streets, clubs and dance-halls ..." (p87 of RM)
And West predicts continued crisis for as long as we refuse to deal with this taboo subject.
As opposed to this predicted continuing crisis, West prescribes that we demystify the taboo subject, and deal with it directly.
The nihilistic threat which West describes is seen manifest in much of our popular music, especially in some forms of rap and hip-hop music.
In his essay "On Afro-American Popular Music: From Bebop to Rap," West observes that rap music is distinguished by the fact that it is "primarily the musical expression of the ... black underclass" (p186 of PROPHETIC FRAGMENTS).
Moreover, this music is distinguished from other popular music indebted to the Afro- American spiritual-blues impulse by reason of its tendency to mute and often eliminate the utopian-hopefulness indigenous to the spiritual-blues impulse.
Again, the nihilistic threat appears in popular music where the traditional rootage in "transcendence and opposition" to oppression is lost (p187 of PF).
Those of us who profess to believe in doing theology from the underside of history cannot rightly ignore the voice of our contemporary underclass.
Accordingly, West prescribes that "The repoliticizing of the black working poor and underclass should focus primarily on the black cultural apparatus, especially the ideological form and content of black popular music" (p289 of KEEPING FAITH).
Moreover West says "more political black popular music is needed" and "Black activists must make black musicians accountable in some way to the urgent needs and interests of the accountable" (p289 of KF).
In short, attention to sexuality and to popular music are prescribed as essential to changing the future from what is predicted to what is envisioned as a more righteous alternative.
There are other prescriptions for black academic and intellectual activity in the work of Cornel West, and time does not permit attention to all of them; but, please indulge me in the mention of one other prescription addressed to us black academics.
In KEEPING FAITH, West finds that compared to the grand accomplishments of black preaching and black music, black intellectual activity has not done as well. And according to West, this is because of our failure to "establish and sustain our own institutional mechanisms of criticism and self-criticism" (p70 of KF).
Accordingly, West prescribes the development of "black infrastructures for intellectual activity" (p71 of KF).
The Society for the Study of Black Religion is one attempt to develop and sustain the infrastructures of self-criticism prescribed by West and others.
In answer to our question--Who are we? Color, Race and the Politics of the Academy, we the members of the Society for the Study of Black Religion are black academics committed to the critical and self-critical study of black religion and culture for the purpose of changing the future from what is predicted to what is envisioned as a more favorable and more righteous alternative.
In summary, this study of West yields the following prescriptions:
Also, see the following by Michael Eric Dyson: