Decolonizing the Human: an Introduction to Sylvia Wynter
Across an oeuvre stunning in its scope—including fiction, drama, theory, and criticism—the work of Jamaican writer Sylvia Wynter represents one of the greatest contributions to Black radical thought in the twentieth century. Rivaling its scope is the eclecticism of disciplines that Wynter marshals—from science studies to literary theory, psychoanalysis, critical race theory, migration studies, and myth-making—in her attempt to wholly rethink the human. For centuries, the ubiquitous protagonist of Western thought appeared in the narrow guise of a Western middle and upper class ideal (bourgeois, white, male), fundamentally racist, violent, and constitutive of global exploitation. Wynter’s synthesizing critique, at once poetic and expository, proposes that “man” thus conceived necessarily projects a “defective Otherness” that obscures and devalues the wide array of possibilities already present in human life. Drawing on work by W.E.B. DuBois, Frantz Fanon, and Aimé Césaire, Wynter prods us, in Katherine McKittrick’s words, to consider “the possibility of undoing and unsettling—not replacing or occupying—Western conceptions of what it means to be human.” For Wynter, this entails a thorough-going decolonization of cultural, literary, and political histories of the Caribbean, towards new horizons for aesthetics, poetics, and, above all, political practice. How, in Wynter’s inventive and interdisciplinary telling, did the Western European become “the figure of man”? And what might it mean to “decolonize” being, power, truth, freedom, and the human?
In this course, we will survey Wynter’s complex body of work, with special attention to what she calls the “sociogenic principle,” borrowed from Fanon’s insight that all phenomena must be approached as socially produced, not ontologically given. How does Wynter analyze the racial and religious demarcation of humanness historically, and how does she understand the importance of myth-making and story-telling in a vital reconfiguration of it? How have colonial legacies, from Caliban to capitalism, constrained the possibilities of humanness? And how does Wynter’s work open these up again, towards a new science of human discourse and the praxis-oriented human? Complementing selections from Wynter’s extensive oeuvre, we’ll also engage with secondary works by Frantz Fanon, Katherine McKittrick, Rinaldo Walcott, Alexander Weheliye, and others.
Course ScheduleMonday, 6:30-9:30pm ET
January 30 — February 20, 2023