Review Of Cornel West keeping Faith: Philosophy And Race In America.
New York: Routledge 1993. Pp. xvii + 319. ISBN 0-415-90486-2.
One might compare Cornel West's Keeping Faith to a military spy satellite whose camera suddenly shifts from a wide-angle view of an entire continent to a close-up snapshot of the postage stamp someone attaches to a secret romantic missive. Reading West's book is exhilarating, but in the same way a bit disorienting.
Keeping Faith is an exploration of many divergent areas of contemporary theory. The four sections deal with cultural criticism, political philosophy, legal theory and practice, and race-theory. To each of these philosophical areas, rarely so unified in the same thinker, West brings a common set of conceptual tools and traditions, developing and refining these common tools through these various diverse applications.
The central goal of Keeping Faith, however, is to situate
West himself a late-20th century, black, Christian, Marxist,
American philosopher and intellectual within his historical
and philosophical milieu; and beyond this to formulate how he
can, within this position, adopt an effective politics of
resistance to racism, sexism, homophobia and class-oppression.
West's method of self-situation is an alternation between broad
characterizations perhaps even homilies (though homilies of a
particular post-Marxist sort) of some major portion of world
history of the last five hundred years and poignant, detailed
analyses and criticisms of particular idiosyncratic figures
within this history. For example, in the first chapter, whose
goal is to characterize, grandiosely, the intellectual
ramifications of historical
European breakthroughs in oceanic
transportation, agricultural production, state consolidation,
bureaucratization, industrialization, urbanization and imperial
dominion (5), the characterization is performed by a serious
of snap-shots of a few important, but decidedly singular,
intellectuals such as Matthew Arnold, T.S. Eliot, Lionel
Trilling and Franz Fanon.
Where West's brilliance really shines is in the details, not in
the somewhat generic descriptions of broad areas. The second
chapter provides a short introduction to the meanings of
literary canon formation, and particularly to contestations
surrounding the meaning and creation of an African-American
canon. The chapter is useful as such perhaps usable in a
literary theory course. Hidden inconspicuously within this,
West remarks (without even mentioning The Signifying Monkey
by name) that Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
goes astray because be it vernacular, oral or
highbrow literature a religious belief in the magical powers
of a glorified set of particular cultural archives (42). This
must be read as a fundamental critique of Gates' pivotal book
and yet it is delivered as no more than an offhand comment,
occupying a single paragraph. The shock is that West is
proceeds on the dubious notion that theories of criticism must
be developed from literature itself
As insightful as the almost aphoristic analyses liberally sprinkled throughout Keeping Faith are, West is best when he does not operate in this manner. Rather than alternate between overview and microscopic detail, the best chapters adopt a middle-focus which provide more substantative and argumentational criticism. The best of these are within the division, Philosophy and Political Engagement, and the best chapter within this division is that on Fredric Jameson. As well as allowing West to consider a recurrent theme of his through the lens of Jameson's theoretical work the relation of ethics to epistemology West enters into a critical, but sympathetic, dialogue with Jameson over the meanings and working of such Marxist fundamentals as ideology and history.
West is clearly drawn to a close link between ethics and
epistemology, particularly to a prioritization of the first
over the second. We can see West wrestle with this equation
both in his sympathy towards Dewey and Royce who conclude that
truth is a species of the good (110) and in his discussion of
Jameson's and Northrop Frye's use of such an equation.
However, West wishes to resist this equation, and such makes up
his central criticism of Jameson. The problem with
deconstructing epistemological presuppositions to arrive at
ethics conceptions, even if these ethical conceptions are ones
which go beyond good and evil, is that these efforts just do
not go far enough. West scolds Jameson but simultaneously
scolds the post-structuralists whom West thinks Jameson does
not succeed in distancing himself from that Jameson has
failed the Marxist (and Pragmatist) lesson of taking history
seriously. West remarks on p.186, against both Jameson and
What is distinctive about the Marxist
project is that it neither resurrects, attacks nor attempts to
"go beyond" metaphysics, epistemology and ethical discourses.
It aims rather at transforming present practices ... Marxism
admonishes us to "let the dead bury the dead."
Stylisticly, West seem overly enamored with taxonomic devices as if simply saying there are three possibilities in a given matter does the necessary philosophical work (it -is usually three, perhaps in homage to Peirce). Sometimes such listing clarifies the discussion, but other times the distinctions are peculiar enough to serve merely as distractions. One finds taxonomies everywhere from a breakdown of materialist analyses of racism into genealogical, microinstitutional and macrostructural (268); to distinguishing Marxist thought, Marxism and Marxist theory (what one might more ordinarily call vulgar Marxism, actually-existing socialism and Marxism, respectively) (258); to breaking the three models for left-intellectuals into oppositional professional, professional political and oppositional intellectual groupings within the academy. The last of these taxonomies, for example, is simply difficult to get a grasp on, despite ample examples and explanations of each; perhaps the vocations of left-intellectuals just are not divided so neatly as West wishes. The shame here is not the West may be wrong in his categories, but that an excess concern with arbitrary categorization might distract the reader from his important discussion of the role of left-intellectuals.
The topics impossible to mention in this review are myriad and fascinating. They range everywhere from political critiques of architecture, to the role of African-American artists, to several chapters treating the Critical Legal Studies movement in various aspects, to contemporary post-Marxist theories of race. Keeping Faith, I believe, truly establishes West as one of North America's premier philosophical minds.