Singh’s book argues that we have yet to understand critically and dynamically how dangerous all forms and practices of mastery are.
“We here on what is called ‘the left’ are also ensnared in forms of violence and complicity.”
In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is Julietta Singh. Singh is Associate Professor of English at the University of Richmond. Her book is Unthinking Mastery: Dehumanism and Decolonial Entanglements.
Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
Julietta Singh: Unthinking Masterybegins by returning us to the political activism and philosophy that undergirded revolutionary anti-colonialism in the last century. Those revolutionary thinkers of the twentieth century were anticipating and acting toward more equitable futures, more just and ethically-oriented worlds that outright refused the supremacy of whiteness and the West. Anti-colonial thinkers accurately diagnosed the ethical and political problem of colonialism as a problem of mastery—of some humans believing that they had a right to hold mastery over others, to dominate other populations based on race, on gender, on religion, on geography. Yet they also deployed other forms of mastery against this specifically colonial kind of violent domination. Mohandas Gandhi, for example, refused colonial mastery by insisting upon self-mastery—if you had full mastery over yourself, your passions, your desires, your body, your mind, you could not be mastered by an outside force. Frantz Fanon believed that in order to achieve a more loving future among human populations those who lived under colonial mastery needed to act physically against it—literally to tear down the structures of oppression that had kept them dehumanized. If you mastered your master you would emerge a “new man,” and the colonizer would be taken down a few notches, and the world would become more equitable.
“Frantz Fanon believed that in order to achieve a more loving future among human populations those who lived under colonial mastery needed to act physically against it.”
All this to say that what you see across anti-colonial thought is that there are forms of mastery that are expressly negative (colonial mastery), and other forms of (anti-colonial) mastery that work in the service of the good, in the service of a better future. My book critiques this logic, arguing that we have yet to understand critically and dynamically how dangerous all forms and practices of mastery are. And, of course, we live in a moment where mastery is the governing logic of virtually every aspect of politics—whether we think about a nation-state that believes it can “stamp out” terrorism by bombing whole communities elsewhere, or about a consumer-capitalist machine that works to destroy the planet but will “fix” it with some future technology… This logic of mastery, embedded even in our most radical and aspirational political movements, continues to govern how we live today.
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
I think those of us who teach, who act, who organize are ceaselessly confronted by a system that—especially today—gets off on an embrace of racism, sexism, and elitism. And we must teach, we must act, we must organize. But part of what I’m trying to do in Unthinking Masteryis to acknowledge that we here on what is called “the left”—but really, those of us well beyond the left—are also ensnared in forms of violence and complicity that we either ignore or can’t yet detect. I’m interested in how radical action remains entangled with complicity and violence. In other words, I’m haunted by a sense that in the politics I want most to embrace I am (despite myself and my desires) forgetting or eliding the exclusions that predicate my political movements.
I think I’m most committed to finding other ways to know-think-feel how our politics are sticky, are messy, are mired in forms of violence that we ourselves cannot see when we claim a platform or a hashtag as our own. In some of the more autobiographical moments of the book, you can see me wishing for another kind of narration—another way of telling the stories of how we come to be who we are, how we come to care about things. And the reason it felt so vital to include myself in this book is not because I have exceptional stories to tell, but because I’m interested in the mundane ways that we become ourselves, and the mundane ways that we can un-become ourselves in an effort to build alternate forms of community, other styles of being together.
We know readers will learn a lot from your book, but what do you hope readers will un-learn? In other words, is there a particular ideology you’re hoping to dismantle?
I love this question, because I think it should be asked of everything we study!: What did I un-learn in studying this text?
Unthinking Masterytries to un-learn what it has meant to be a human across modernity. There’s an amazing coincidence in the fact that the discourse of “equality for all men” is inaugurated at the height of the slave trade. Even within the language and politics of equality, some of us are always structurally and constitutively excluded from that equation. And this is crucially linked to the fact that this thing called “Man” is understood through Western European modernity as a being who has mastery over himself and is therefore in an ideal position to hold mastery over others. So, to my mind it’s not about finding better ways to achieve “equality” but about finding new ways to reimagine and reinvent what it is to be a human being. I want to un-learn the human, and to learn it again in radically different ways.
Who are the intellectual heroes that inspire your work?
I’m always wary of the language of heroes…
But there are certainly thinkers and activists who have been indispensable to my thinking. Gandhi and Fanon are key players in the first half of my book, and I’ve learned an extraordinary amount from each of them. At the same time, I engage with them through an indebted critique—I look to their work precisely to see the things that they could not or would not see in their own political moments. I read them for all of the promises they usher into the world and embrace, but also for all they eschew—women, Indigenous peoples, animals, the differently-abled…these were some of the bodies left out of or precariously situated within their political movements. Of course, I’m reading them in the present moment from a very different field of inclusivity. I’m not interested in punishing them for their limitations, but rather in using them as illustrations of our own contemporary political and collective exclusions.
But if I were to answer this question in another way, I could also say that I cannot do without some of the anti-masterful queer/brown/black thinkers of our time—Sara Ahmed, Judith Butler, Jack Halberstam, Fred Moten, José Muñoz…
In what way does your book help us imagine new worlds?
I was a mother of a young child and recovering from a debilitating injury when I started writing Unthinking Mastery. Both experiences—motherhood and serious bodily injury—very much informed the desires and promises embedded in the book. I had been through a time in life when I could no longer pretend that I was an autonomous being, and instead had to reckon with the fact that I was radically dependent on other people and other bodies to help sustain me. I was also radically depended upon by my infant, even while I was the most vulnerable I had ever been. I felt that I had lost almost everything, and yet there I was still trying to find community, still trying to make up a new world where I could feel fully supported and embraced.
Whether we are talking about a nation-state being on the verge of political independence from colonial rule, or whether we are talking about the internal racism that structures this country where we live, or whether we are talking about the crises that constitute our personal lives, each of these situations are reminders that we are always trying and aiming and failing and trying again to conjure up better worlds, more dynamic futures for ourselves and for all the lives that will live beyond us. This is why I emerge in Unthinking Masteryas a vulnerable subject of the book—as someone whose own history dovetails with the political histories that have given rise to the world we live in now. That idea of re-learning ourselves, of seeking out alternate communities, of living in the knowledge of our individual and collective vulnerability—and of living better together because of it.
Roberto Sirventis Professor of Political and Social Ethics at Hope International University in Fullerton, CA. He also serves as the Outreach and Mentoring Coordinator for thePolitical Theology Network. He’s currently writing a book with fellow BAR contributor Danny Haiphong called American Exceptionalism and American Innocence: The Fake News of Wall Street, White Supremacy, and the U.S. War Machine.
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