Long Read | Knowledge must mutate to be fully human

In an extraordinary intervention after the Los Angeles riots, which began on this day, 29 April, in 1991, Sylvia Wynter challenged her colleagues in the academy to “marry their thought” to the plight of impoverished and jobless black people.

Between 29 April and 4 May 1992, riots erupted across South Central Los Angeles after an all middle-class, and mostly white, jury acquitted four white police officers of any wrongdoing for the filmed and widely disseminated beating and arrest of African-American motorist Rodney King. After the riots Sylvia Wynter wrote an open letter to her academic colleagues. Her letter examined the way in which dominant knowledge systems excluded some people from being counted as human. She argued that, using a term drawn from Frantz Fanon, there is an urgent need for a “mutation” in knowledge that enables intellectuals to “marry their thought” to the situation of the people inhabiting the jobless archipelagos that have become a permanent feature of contemporary domination.

This is an edited excerpt of Sylvia Wynter’s “No Humans Involved: An Open Letter to My Colleagues” first published in full in Forum NHI Knowledge for the 21st Century 1.1 (Fall 1994). An abridged version was published as “No Humans Involved: An Open Letter to My Colleagues” in Voices of the African Diaspora: The CAAS Research Review 8, no 2 (Fall 1992). The Research Review was a publication of the Center for Afroamerican and African Studies (CAAS) at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

Dear Colleagues

You may have heard a radio news report which aired briefly during the days after the jury’s acquittal of the policemen in the Rodney King beating case. The report stated that public officials of the judicial system of Los Angeles routinely used the acronym NHI to refer to any case involving a breach of the rights of young Black males who belong to the jobless category of the inner city ghettos. NHI means “no humans involved.” Stephen Jay Gould argues that “systems of classification direct our thinking and order our behaviors.” By classifying this category as NHI these public officials would have given the police of Los Angeles the green light to deal with its members in any way they pleased. You may remember too that in the earlier case of the numerous deaths of young Black males caused by a specific chokehold used by Los Angeles police officers to arrest young Black males, the police chief Darryl Gates explained away these judicial murders by arguing that Black males had something abnormal with their windpipes. That they had to be classified and thereby treated differently from all other North Americans except, to a secondary degree, the darker skinned Latinos. For in this classificatory schema too all “minorities” are equal except one category – that of the peoples of African and of Afro-mixed descent who, as Andrew Hacker points out in his recent book, are the least equal of all.

Yet where did this system of classification come from? One that was held both by the officers involved in this specific case of the routine “nigger breaking” of Black males, as well as by the mainly white, middle-class suburban Simi Valley jurors? Most of all, and this is the point of my letter to you, why should the classifying acronym NHI, with its reflex anti-Black male behaviour-prescriptions, have been so actively held and deployed by the judicial officers of Los Angeles, and therefore by “the brightest and the best” graduates of both the professional and non-professional schools of the university system of the United States? By those whom we ourselves would have educated?

How did they come to conceive of what it means to be both human and North American in the kinds of terms (i.e. to be White, of Euroamerican culture and descent, middle-class, college-educated and suburban) within whose logic the jobless and usually school drop-out/push-out category of young Black males can be perceived, and therefore behaved towards, only as the Lack of the human, the Conceptual Other to being North American? The same way, as Zygmunt Bauman has pointed out, that all Germans of Jewish descent were made into and behaved towards as the Conceptual Other to German identity in its then Pan-Aryan and Nazi form.

If, as Ralph Ellison alerted us to in his The Invisible Man, we see each other only through the “inner eyes” with which we look with our physical eyes upon reality, the question we must confront in the wake of the Rodney King Event becomes: What is our responsibility for the making of those “inner eyes?” Ones in which humanness and North Americanness are always already defined, not only in optimally White terms, but also in optimally middle-class (i.e. both Simi Valley, and secondarily Cosby-Huxtable TV family), variants of these terms? What have we had to do, and still have to do, with the putting in place of the classifying logic of that shared mode of “subjective understanding” in whose “inner eyes” young Black males can be perceived as being justly shut out from what Helen Fein calls the “universe of moral obligation” that bonds the interests of the Simi Valley jurors as Whites and non-Blacks (one Asian, one Hispanic) to the interests of the White policemen and the Los Angeles judicial officeholders who are our graduates?

Jesse Jackson made the point that the uprising of South Central LA “was a spontaneous combustion – this time not of discarded material but of discarded people”. As is the case with the also hitherto discardable environment, its ongoing pollution and ozone layer depletion, the reality of the throwaway lives, both at the global socio-human level, of the vast majority of peoples who inhabit the “favela/shantytown” of the globe and their jobless archipelagoes, as well as at the national level, of Baldwin’s “captive population” in the urban inner cities, (and on the Indian reservations of the United States), have not been hitherto easily perceivable within the classificatory logic of our “inner eyes”.

1 May 1992: Jesse Jackson speaks to South Central Los Angeles residents. (Photograph by Peter Turnley/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)

In other words, the two phenomena, that of the physical and that of the global socio-human environments, have been hidden costs, which necessarily remained invisible to the “inner eyes” of the mode of subjective understanding, generated from our present disciplines of the social sciences and humanities. And therefore, within the mode of “truth” or epistemological order based upon the representation of the human as if it were a natural organism.

My proposal here is that both of these “hidden costs” cannot be normally seen as costs within the terms of the hegemonic economic categories, and therefore of the absolutism of its related economic ethic (as the analogues of the theological categories/absolutism of the scholastic order of knowledge of feudal-Christian Europe) and that, furthermore, it is this ethic, and its supra-ordinate goal of higher and higher “standards of living” (i.e. the goal of material redemption, whereas in the feudal order the behaviour-orienting goal was that of spiritual redemption) that now sets the limits of our culture-specific “inner eyes” – the limits therefore of how we can see, know and behave upon our present global and national order; the limits therefore of our “Truth.”

That it sets these limits (as the now purely secularised form of the original Judaeo-Christian theological ethic in its feudal form), as rule-governedly as that ethic had set “limits”, before the revolution of lay humanism, with respect to how the subjects of its then order could see, know and behave upon the world. In the same way also, as before the intellectual revolution, which took place from the end of the 18th century onwards, the political ethic (with which the humanists had replaced the theological), had itself set the limits of how the then sociocultural reality of pre-industrial Europe could be seen, known and behaved upon; within the terms therefore of what Michel Foucault defined as the classical episteme.

Keith Tribe points out in his book Land, Labour and Economic Discourse (1978) that it was only with Adam Smith’s partial, and with David Ricardo’s completed, putting in place of new “economic categories” at the beginning of the 19th century that the earlier order of knowledge based on the hegemony of political categories was finally displaced; and that the emergent centrality of the processes of industrial production, over against the earlier hegemony of agricultural production, was given epistemological and therefore optimally behaviour-prescriptive status.

Black Americans are the only population group of the post-1492 Americas who had been legitimately owned, ie, enslaved, over several centuries. Their owned and enslaved status had been systemically perceived with the “inner eyes” and the classificatory logic of the earlier episteme, its hegemonic political categories and behaviour-orienting political ethic, to be legitimate and just. The frequent slave revolts as well as the Abolition Movement, together with the Haitian Revolution and the Civil War in the United States, fundamentally broke the military power that had sustained that perception. Nevertheless, the displacement of that earlier “Truth” had been only verified at the level of the cognitive models of the society, when “heretical” thinkers like Adam Smith and David Ricardo had been able to “marry their thought” to the cause of the emergent forces of the industrial world – i.e. to the cause of “free trade” (against “protection” for agricultural producers) and the activity of the industrial bourgeoisie – forces that were then blocked in their emergence, not only by the restrictive laws, but also by the behaviour prescriptive categories of the earlier episteme in whose logic the “hidden costs” of protectionist policies for agricultural produce (including products grown by forced slave labour) could not be seen as costs.

This is the central point that Zygmunt Bauman makes with respect to the now global category of the New Poor. Consequently, the central issue that confronts us here is whether we too will be able to move beyond the epistemic limits of our present “inner eyes” in order, in Bauman’s words, to “marry our thought” to the emergent post-industrial plights of both the planetary as well as the global socio-human environment. Specifically with the “captive population” and jobless category of South Central Los Angeles, who can have no peaceful way of imposing their will upon a city and state, whose ordered hierarchies and everyday behaviours are legitimated in the last instance by the worldview encoded by our present order of knowledge. Bauman points out that the emergence of the category of the New Poor is due to a systemic factor. Capital, with the rise of the global processes of technological automation, has increasingly freed itself from its dependence on labour. The organised working class, in consequence, which had been seen as the potential agent of social transformation during the phase of capital accumulation, one that had been primarily based on production, no longer has enough clout to put a stop to the process of expanding job erosion now that consumption has displaced production as the primary medium of capital accumulation. During the production phase, the category of the jobless poor, both in the First as well as in the reserve “native” Third worlds, had a function. This function had been that of providing an excess of labour supply over demand, in order to put a brake on wage costs. In this new consumption phase of capital accumulation, it has no function.

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It is within the “Truth” of our present epistemological order, and therefore within the terms of its related “grand narrative of human emancipation”, whose supra-ordinate goal or purpose, rather than being as it had been in the case of the earlier classical episteme that of the expansion of the state, is now that of securing the material wellbeing of the biologised Body of the Nation, and therefore of its optimal middle-class mode of the subject, Foucault’s Man, that, as Bauman points out, we cannot as intellectuals, whether Liberal Positivist or Marxist-Leninist, marry our thought to the plight of the New Poor; cannot marry our thought to the wellbeing of the human, rather than only to that of “Man”, ie, our present middle-class mode of the subject (or of sociogeny).

The poor and the oppressed, Bauman notes, have therefore come to lose all attractiveness for the intellectuals. This category, unlike the working-class jobholders, cannot be seen within the economic logic of our present organisation of knowledge as contributors to the process of production who have been unjustly deprived of the “full value of their labour power”. Moreover, the fact that this New Poor is seduced too, like all of us, by the clamour of advertisements which urge them to consume so that, frustrated in their consumption goals, they turn on, mutilate and kill each other, or “damage themselves with alcohol and drugs,” convinced of their own worthlessness, or in brief episodes of eruption, “fire the ghettos, riot, looting whatever they can lay their hands on”, means that today’s intellectuals, while they feel and express their pity, refrain from proposing to marry their thought with this particular variety of human suffering.

“They theorise,” Bauman writes, “the reason for their reluctance. Jürgen Habermas would say that the New Poor are not exploited. Claus Offe would add that they are politically ineffective, as having no labour to withdraw, they are deprived of bargaining power … The New Poor need help on humane grounds: they are unfit for grooming as the future remakers of the world.”

How then did they change the course of North American history in two days? How did they, the proscribed category of the NHI, James Baldwin’s “captive population”, Frantz Fanon’s les damnes, come to not only impose their will upon the city and the state, but to also directly challenge the mode of “Truth” in whose logic their plight, like that of the environment’s, is neither posable nor resolvable?

If, as Eritrean anthropologist Asmarom Legesse suggests, because of our role as the grammarians of our order we must ourselves, normally, and as the condition of our order’s integration and stable replication, remain imprisoned in the “structural models” that we ourselves put in place, then how are we to be enabled to break out of one cultural specific native model of reality (one variant of our “inner eyes”) and make the transition from one Foucauldian episteme, from one founding and behaviour-regulating narrative, to another? In other words, how can we marry our thought so that we can now pose the questions whose answers can resolve the plight of the jobless archipelagoes, the NHI categories, and the environment?

2 May 1992: A homeless person sleeps at a bus stop with graffiti referencing Rodney King and Latasha Harlins, the 15-year-old shot in the head by a Korean shopkeeper who suspected her of shoplifting. (Photograph by Lindsay Brice/Getty Images)

The answer to both will necessarily call for us to move beyond the absolutism of our present economic categories, as in the 14th to the 15th centuries the lay humanists of Europe moved beyond that of the theological categories of scholasticism and the 19th century classical economists moved beyond that of the political categories of the earlier epistemological order. For Legesse defines his explanatory key in the new terms of culture-systemic categories, which move outside the logic of our present mode of subjective understanding, based on the concept of the human as a purely natural organism which can pre-exist the culturally instituted and “sanctified universe of obligation” by means of which we are alone “socialised” as inter-altruistically bonded mode of symbolic “kin”, and therefore as specific modes of the sociogenic subject and of systemic sociality. Legesse suggests that the cognitive escape hatch is always to be found in the category of the liminal. This is the category whose rule-governed negation institutes a principle of difference from which both the optimal criterion of being and the “fake” mode of similarity or of unanimity, on which each order can alone institute itself as a living system, are dynamically generated. Whether that of the “fallen” lay humanists of medieval Europe, who were negatively represented as being “enslaved to original sin” unlike the celibate clergy who were, as such, the guardians of the mainstream system of scholastic knowledge, or, in the case of the peoples of African and Afro-mixed descent, as the category of the human other, represented as enslaved to its dysselected evolutionary origins, and whose physiognomic distance from “normal” being provides the genetic principle of difference and similarity, which bonds all whites, and increasingly non-blacks, non-whites at the level of race, and of all middle-class subjects at the level of class. Most crucially of course, since the 1960s the liminal category of les damnes, i.e., the NHI category of South Central Los Angeles, whose doubled pariah status as poor/jobless and black, has come to serve a central systemic function for the now post-industrial nation-state order of the United States.

Because the negative proscription of the liminal category is the very condition of each human order’s functioning as an organisationally and cognitively closed self-regulating or autopoietic system, the premise of this category’s proscription is central to the “ground” from which the “regimes of truth” of each epistemological order and its disciplinary paradigms are rule-governedly generated. The liminal category’s empirical exclusion, like that of the exclusion of the inner city ghetto of South Central Los Angeles, is therefore a condition of each order’s “truth”.

It is only when such a category moves out of its negated place, therefore, that the grammarians of an order (as in the case where the lay humanist intelligentsia refused their liminal role in the scholastic system of knowledge) can be freed from their system-maintaining “structural models” and prescriptive categories.

For it is precisely, Legesse argues, out of the field of dynamic interaction between “the generalised horizon of understanding” or “inner eyes” put in place by the prescriptive categories of all culture-specific orders of knowledge, and the empirical on-the-ground process to which the collective behaviours of each order’s subjects, as oriented by these prescriptive categories, give rise, that there emerges the liminal category which, in its thrust towards emancipation from its systemic role, can serve to “remind us that we need not forever remain prisoners of our prescriptions”. Since by its very movement out of its proscribed place, as in the uprising that followed on the Simi Valley jurors’ acquittal of the policemen “nigger-breakers”, such a category generates conscious change in all subjects by exposing all the injustices inherent in structure; and again, like the NHI category of South Central Los Angeles, in two days of rage, “by creating a real contradiction between structure and anti-structure, social order and man-made anarchy”, epistemological orders and new modes of knowing.

The speech of the street? 
Or the speech of a scientific humanism: towards the rewriting of knowledge

In a 1984 essay, I had proposed that the task of Black Studies, together with those of all the other New Studies that had also entered academia in the wake of the 1960s uprisings, should be that of rewriting knowledge. I had proposed then that we should attempt to do so in the terms of the Chilean biologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela’s new insights into the rules that govern the ways in which humans can and do know the social reality of which they are always already socialised subjects. I had then cited Sir Stafford Beer’s argument (who wrote the introduction to their book) to this effect. Beer, as I wrote then, had argued that “contemporary scholarship is trapped in its present organisation of knowledge” in which, anyone “who can lay claim to knowledge about some categorised bit of the world, however tiny, which is greater than anyone else’s knowledge of that bit, is safe for life”. As a result, “while papers increase exponentially, and knowledge grows by infinitesimals, our understanding of the world actually recedes”. Consequently, “because our world is an interacting system in dynamic change, our system of scholarship rooted in its own sanctified categories, is in a large part, unavailing to the needs of mankind”. If, Beer concluded, “we are to understand a newer and still evolving world; if we are to educate people to live in that world; if we are to abandon categories and institutions that belong to a vanished world as it is well nigh desperate that we should … then knowledge must be rewritten”.

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My proposal did not get very far then. After Los Angeles, however, both the times and the situation have changed. Hence my open letter to you. St Clair Drake, one of the founders of the Afro-American Studies Programme at Stanford, always pointed out to students that there were “street tasks” and intellectual tasks. To extrapolate from Drake, there is street speech and intellectual speech. It is not unfair to say that the recent Los Angeles example of the street tasks and street speech of a “captive population” imposing its will upon the city and the state by the only means it had available, took place in the absence of that new post-industrial and post nation-state speech or order of knowledge, which it was the collective task of all the New “lay” Studies to have effected in the wake of the 1960s; in the wake of those first urban uprisings, therefore, which challenged the “Truth” of our present episteme.

The eruption of the NHI/liminal category in South Central Los Angeles has again opened a horizon from which to spearhead the speech of a new frontier of knowledge, able to move us toward a new, correlated human species, and eco-systemic, ethic. Such a new horizon, I propose, will also find itself convergent with other horizons being opened up, at all levels of learning – as, for example, in the case of the new sciences of complexity related to the rise of the computer, as Heinz Pagels points out in his 1988 book The Dreams of Reason. It is this convergence that will make it possible for us to understand the rules governing our human modes of perception and the behaviours to which they lead – as in the case of the misrecognition of human kinship expressed in the NHI acronym, in the beating and the verdict, as well as in the systemic condemnation of all the Rodney Kings, and the global poor and jobless, to the futility and misery of the lives they live as the price paid for our well-being. It is only by this mutation of knowledge that we shall be able to secure, as a species, the full dimensions of our human autonomy with respect to the systemic and always narratively instituted purposes that have governed us hitherto outside of our conscious awareness and consensual intentionality.

29 April 1992: A police officer points a gun at looters during the widespread riots that erupted after four Los Angeles Police Department officers were acquitted of beating Rodney King. (Photograph by Ron Eisenberg/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

“I believe,” Pagels wrote at the end of his book, “that the most dramatic impact of the new sciences will be to narrow the gap between the natural and the human world. For as we come to grasp the management of complexity, the rich structures of symbols, and perhaps consciousness itself, it is clear that the traditional barriers – barriers erected on both sides – between natural science and the humanities cannot forever be maintained. The narrative order of culturally constructed worlds, the order of human feeling and beliefs, will become subject to scientific description in a new way. Just as it did during the Italian renaissance, a new image of humanity will emerge in the future as science and art interact in the complementary spheres … I continue to believe that the distant day will come when the order of human affairs is not entirely established by domination.”

The point of this letter is to propose that the coming of that distant day, and the end, therefore, of the need for the violent speech of the inner city streets, is up to us. The starving fellah (or the jobless inner city NHI, the global New Poor or les damnés), Fanon pointed out, does not have to inquire into the truth. He is, they are, the Truth. It is we who institute this “Truth”. We must now undo their narratively condemned status.

I am,
Sincerely yours,

Sylvia Wynter 
Afro-American Studies 
May, 1992

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