In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is Omedi Ochieng. Ochieng is Associate Professor in Black Studies and in the Department of Communication at Denison University. His book is Groundwork for the Practice of the Good Life: Politics and Ethics at the Intersection of North Atlantic and African Philosophy.
Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
Omedi Ochieng: What are we to make of our current political and social climate? Ecologically, we are in the vortex of an ongoing catastrophe we scarcely know how to comprehend, let alone confront. Politically, herrenvolk trans-nationalist coalitions are resurgent and emboldened across the world. Ethically, the world is gripped in a crisis of care – children malnourished and dying from hunger, the elderly abandoned in nursing homes, poor and working class people evicted and left to the mercies of the elements, the incarcerated all but made nonpersons by the state, workers exposed to infection, sickness, disability, and death, caregivers shattered from having to attend to dependents while desperately striving to earn income to survive. Existentially, the dreams of vast majorities heave with thwarted hopes, manic desires, perverse and nihilist ideations.
This book suggests the beginnings of a language and a practice for thinking the ecological, the political, the ethical, and the existential together. What precisely does this entail? I suggest that we must join in a politics and an ethic that is radical, material, and planetary. I argue that the horizon of such a task must be oriented toward revolution; one resolutely, relentlessly, even ruthlessly dedicated to the defeat of the reigning social order – this social order being a capitalist, racially-supremacist, patriarchal, heteronormative, ableist, and religio-stratified global system.
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
The left worldwide has metabolized its defeat by adopting a vocabulary of the scaled down. The wording of your question is perhaps illustrative: you asked me about what activists and community organizers will take away from reading my book. It says something about this historical moment that the “activist” and the “community organizer” are foregrounded by a great many people as the quintessential oppositional figures to the reigning order. I am not arguing that there is something wrong with activists and community organizers. Precisely the opposite: we should see them as part of a vaster oppositional field, not take them as exhausting the range of antagonists to capitalism. Our problem is that we have too narrow a space of the possible when it comes to taking the fight to capitalism. Other oppositional figures have been rendered unthinkable in their specificity as strategists and mortal foes of imperialist capitalism – I mean here figures such as the criminal, the insurgent, the refugee, the unemployed, the caregiver, and the revolutionary.
The defeats of the left, starting from counter-revolutions against freedom movements in the Global South, through to neoliberal counterrevolutions in the Global North, have led to a shriveling of the imagination.
If my book does nothing else, I want us to reclaim an ambition for material, radical, and planetary transformation. We may need to relearn, and teach one another, how to enunciate, without equivocation, terms and practices such as insurgency, riot, sabotage, and revolution.
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?
In Minima Moralia, Adorno writes, “Wrong life cannot be lived rightly.” We are living in the midst of ongoing catastrophe: entire communities seasonally destroyed by fires, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, and other devastations of climate change. Capitalism continues to feed its insatiable hunger for broken bodies. The cruelty and tyranny of the white supremacist international – read: police force – now circles the globe. In the midst of such devastation, how can we talk about the “good life”?
My book is an invitation to think about what a “good life” means in the ruins wrought by interlocking systems of exploitation and oppression. The book suggests that various collectives will have to unlearn different things. For some, as I hinted above in my response to the previous question, it is vital to unlearn making a virtue of defeat. For other groups, it is imperative that they unlearn habits of moralism – by that I mean, a fixation with the moral theatrics of cathartic scapegoating.
And yet for other readers, it will be necessary to unlearn a false picture that holds some left circles captive. I’m referring to the belief that since structural forces and in particular, class struggles, are at the heart of what it means to be of the left, then it follows that ethics, aesthetics, play, interpersonal and affiliative relationships, and other relational forms of care (for example, taking care to get people’s pronouns right) are bourgeois hang-ups, or, as the kids say, for “normies.” My book pushes back against this ideology. I argue that a robust notion of the “good life” can only emerge when we articulate the political life, the ethical life, the aesthetic life, and the intellectual life as intertwined, living practices. Somehow, we must find a way of doing so in the shadow of ongoing eco-fascism.
Who are the intellectual heroes that inspire your work?
So, for various reasons I am skeptical of the very notion of “intellectual heroes.” I don’t want to deny that I have been profoundly shaped by some thinkers that I turn to again and again, but the deeper you read anyone, the more you appreciate the intellectual histories that they are embedded in and the relationships that nurtured and sustained their work. For that reason, I am more inclined to speak of intellectual traditions, schools and collectives that are formative of my intellectual imagination, than to single out a few Great Intellectuals.
To that end, I would name the following (overlapping, intertwined) traditions as deeply formative of my thinking: the Black Radical Tradition; African Philosophy; Black Feminism; Marxism; Materialist Psychoanalysis; Global South Queer Theory; ecological and utopian arts and crafts; and post-analytic philosophy.
In what way does your book help us imagine new worlds?
This is precisely the book’s main subject. It explores what it would mean to imagine new worlds. To that end, it does not assume that we mean the same thing when referring to the “imagination.” Instead, I posit the imagination as a politically contested practice. I’m critical of Humean accounts of the imagination, which ultimately evince a fear of the imagination, and Romantic theories, wherein the imagination is characterized as representations at a radical remove from the actual.
Instead, my book suggests a radical, material, embodied, collective imagination. First, radical – committed fully to the comprehensive transformation of ecology, politics, economics, ethics, and aesthetics. This does not mean that we glibly oppose reformist measures. Rather, it means that our horizon is toward a root and branch transformation. In the book, I talk about the chronotopian imagination, as opposed to the anti-utopian and the utopian. By that I mean an imagination that is on the one hand responsive to the lessons of history, does not shy away from facing up to actually existing constraints, does not wish away contradictions, perversity, and defeat. On the other hand, it is also an imagination that rejects the fantasy that liberal capitalism is the end point of history. Second, material – a politics, economics, and culture that is shaped by the struggle for embodied flourishing, understood capaciously as inclusive of social and cultural flourishing. Such a politics is critical of anti-utopian, moralistic politics besotted by “rights talk,” “values,” and “representation.” But it also opposes a vulgar utopian politics given over to gestural, bombastic, and ultimately idealistic pronouncements. Third, planetary – driven by a new relationship to ecology, acknowledging the fragility and irreplaceability of healthy ecosystems, and fired by the imagination of those that Frantz Fanon called the “condemned of the earth.”
Roberto Sirvent is editor of the Black Agenda Report Book Forum.