"So I had to do a lot of thinking and reappraising of my definiton of black nationalism. Can we sum up the solution to the problems confronting our people as black nationalism? [...] I still would be hard pressed to give a specific definition of the overall philosophy which I think is necessary for the liberation of black people in this country."
- Malcolm X, "Young Socialist," 1965
"These remarks... indicate that even at a mature stage of the development of his philosophical position, Malcolm did not hesitate to re-examine his ideas and consider the possibility of radical shifts in that position."
- Angela Davis, "Meditations on the Legacy of Malcolm X," 1992
Reading Davis is always a treat. What I read in this, one aspect of Davis's point, is that Malcolm X had taken on a demanding self-critique of his own political philosophy. Though I am interested in reading more on both Davis and Malcolm X, what I see here is remarkable. A political posture amongst these radicals is both strong and reflective. These are not individuals who reached firm ground and stayed there; rather, they understood the usefulness of one position without allowing that to define them. What does this mean for me?
It is important to me take theory and develop opinions, take opinions to inspire feeling, to take feeling and move that to action. This itself is a reflective process that is augmented by self-contained questions: Do they opinions "fit" or do they require further restructuring of myself? Do those opinions or feelings suggest an incomplete or inadequate theory? Does the action make sense? Does action--behavior, activism, community development, occupation--manifest in meaningful ways? What new insights surface with action? These questions lead to a reassessment of theory that then recreates the process. It is reflective and hopefully generative series of questions and answers.
This reflexivity and world-action-self reciprocity is not a simple, everyday thing, either. It seems to be a process shared with Malcolm X and Angela Davis, at least based on these excerpts. The important thing is that this fluidity and potential change does not undermine one's ability to be active and engaged. Being in-process does not mean that action is inconsequential or incomplete. It may, and I think ought to, describe how activism is process-oriented; process-oriented in that what is being done now is part of the largest timeliness of involvement and change but also how the self is processed and reprocessed by a life of critical activism and theory. Strength in stance is not the same as an unmoving stance, fluidity does not undermine fortitude and action.
Should I be surprised? Not exactly. There are two archetypes of renowned philosophers that come to mind: One is the philosopher who develops a theory from bedrock to the heavens throughout his or her life, Kant and Spinoza are two examples; the other provides a landmark theory and later in life completely contradicts that theory, Wittgenstein and Descartes do this. Which, I wonder, best describes this type of critical self-reflection. Descartes's La Monde (unfinished) actually shares a few qualities with Spinoza's Ethica, so substantially one style does not exclude the outcomes of the other. Does the lifelong work require a constant self-criticality that prevents a finished piece? Does a finished work allow for a radical self-critique (what Malcolm X may have undergone in some speculative alternative history) that is prevented by regular revisions and reconsiderations?
I often write papers until I can't look at them anymore. I research, think, write, think, reread, research, rewrite, and so on until I can't think anymore on the subject. I end up with a piece that, with some time and distance, I can then divorce from myself adequately to say, "Yes, this is on the right track," or "No, I can't hold to this argument because..." It isn't until I can finish and establish distance that I can really disagree and self-critique. Of course, not everyone works and thinks like this. Perhaps the trick of the lifelong masterpiece is to be able to open oneself up to radical criticism without distance, to incorporate that into one's perspective. Oddly, I can identify how Spinoza--constantly toiling away at his Ethica, grinding lenses until the glass filled his lungs and killed him--and Wittgenstein--despite his radical self-critique embodied in Philosophical Investigations--both lived their philosophies. Kant never traveled more than twenty miles from his home; does this prevent a more divorced critique of his theory? Descartes traveled but created a philosophical mindset that allowed for gruesome vivisection (literally: "life-dividing") experiments for the next several hundred years.
Of course, I don't have a conclusion. (I haven't even finished Angela Davis's article.) This is more a reflection on how life and action interrelate and inform the world (in its fullness) of our selves (in our emptiness). I consider how Sartre's Being and Nothingness creates a self defined by no-thing as it makes contact with the world of being. It is divisive of the world in ways I cannot easily reconcile, but appreciate how this emptiness provides space for recreation and redefinition. Foucault and Gramsci describe the ways the what-who of a person are defined by hierarchies of power, but it does not mean that we are limited in any essential sense. Rather, we are part of fragile systems that we need, in terms of justice, to break and redefine as we live our lives. I do not want fullness--content, stagnant, static--I want wholeness--dynamic, ecological, rhythmic.