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Cornel West on Truth (Part 2)

Taylor: Let’s talk about this idea of the market more. You mentioned its effect on love and its preference for sentimentalism. But what about thinking? What is philosophy’s place in a market-driven society? What’s the market’s effect on philosophical or intellectual discourse?

West: On the one hand, you know, you’ve got professionalized philosophy, which is in professional/managerial spaces, namely universities, that conduct philosophy as a technical expertise rather then [sic] a way of life, rather then [sic] a mode of existence. And of course it’s tied to the market in the sense that these multiversities, these highly specialized and professionalized multiversities and universities, are parasitic on corporate capital for the most part and there’s often very cozy and intimate relations between the corporate elites who rule and the universities who are financially and disproportionately dependent on the wealth and monies of the corporate elite. So for the most part you tend not to look to the history of universities as being places for serious radical political action, radical political ideas, radical political paradigms, and so on. There are exceptions but for the most part I’ve never had high expectations of the academy. I mean, American history, my God, if we had waited for universities to fight wars against male supremacy and white supremacy and the wealth and inequality generated by corporate greed, then we’d have very few victories. See, much of the courage has come from the demos – from ordinary people, from below – and the academicians are then affected by the social movements and respond thereto. 

Taylor: And they can do valuable work in that capacity.

West: Absolutely – well, not only that, but I mean there’s a certain pleasure of the life of the mind that cannot be denied. There’s a certain pleasure about being around people who enact a playfulness when it comes to the world of ideas.

Taylor: Let’s hear more about this. Convince the audience.

West: Oh yes, I mean, intellectual hedonism has its place. I’m a Christian, but I’m not a puritan. I believe in pleasure and orgiastic pleasure has its place, intellectual pleasure has its place, social pleasure has its place, televisual pleasure has its place. I like certain TV shows. My God, when it comes to music, Beethoven’s great string quartet, Opus 131 – unbelievable aesthetic pleasure. The same goes for Curtis Mayfield, the Beatles, or what have you, on different levels. So that intellectual pleasure’s very important – it’s just that we have to be honest that it presupposes certain kinds of structures and institutions, like universities, and they have histories. So its pleasure, no matter how desirable, is never innocent: it’s always presupposing and assuming a certain kind of social order, one usually shot through structures of domination.

Taylor: Last night I was talking to Simon Critchley and he made the case that to be a philosopher, to be an intellectual, is already to be half-dead. You’re like a corpse. How pleasurable can that be?

West: No, I wouldn’t agree with that, though. The conversation with the dead is one of the great pleasures of life. My God, somebody who is sitting there reading Chekhov, Beckett, reading Toni Morrison – you are not in any way dead, in many ways you are intensely alive. I mean, when my dear brother Simon reads Wallace Stevens in his wonderful book Things Merely Are, he’s very much alive. It’s impossible to be dead and dull reading Wallace Stevens’s intricate and subtle plays of mind. So it’s true that you might be socially isolated because you’re in the library, at home and so on, but you’re intensely alive. In fact you’re much more alive than these folk walking the streets of New York in crowds, with no intellectual interrogation and questioning going at all. But if you read John Ruskin, or you read Mark Twain, or, my God, Herman Melville, you almost have to throw the book against the wall because you’re almost so intensely alive that you need a break! It’s time to take a break, get a little dullness in your life, take Moby-Dick and throw it against the wall the way Goethe threw von Kleist’s work against the wall. It was just too much. It reminded Goethe of the darkness that he was escaping after he overcame those suicidal impulses with Sorrows of Young Werther in the 1770s that made him move towards neoclassicism in Weimar. There are certain things that make us almost too alive: it’s almost like being too intensely in love – you can’t do anything. It’s hard to get back to chronos, it’s hard to get back to everyday life, you know what I mean? The kairotic* dimension of being in love with another person – everything is so meaningful you want to sustain it. You just can’t do it, you know? You’ve got to go to the bathroom, get a drink of water!

(This is Part II of the interview. Click here to read Part I.)

*From kairos, meaning a propitious moment for decision or action. Whereas chronos conveys the linear or quantitative aspect of time, kairos stresses the qualitative element.

Copyright © 2009 by Astra Taylor.  This excerpt originally appeared in Examined Life: Excursions with Contemporary Thinkers edited by Astra Taylor. Published by The New Press.  Reprinted here with permission.


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