Thursday, January 14, 2016

Between Ta-Nehisi and Me

I was asked this morning what I make of Thomas Chatterton Williams's somewhat acerbic take in the London Review of Books of Ta-Nehisi Coates's Between the World and Me, and I thought maybe I would respond in public, since I haven't actually said much about Coates, other than to declare on Twitter that I regard him as the country's most vital public intellectual.

There are a number of things I find remarkable about Ta-Nehisi Coates. First, from a scholarly perspective, I have been struck by how self-consciously he is re-working the black intellectual-historical experiential tradition, from ex-patting in Paris, composing a book in the form of a letter to his son, closely reading Du Bois, etc. Second, I’m amazed at how he has emerged so suddenly, from almost complete obscurity (by this I mean that until about 2010, I’d never heard of him) to replace Andrew Sullivan as the country’s most vital public intellectual. What I mean by “vital” here is that he is consistently and originally grappling with (what I personally regard as) the most profound moral-political problem facing the country today, and doing so in a way that, while deeply marinated in theory and historiography, is free of jargon and cant.

Ta-Nehisi Coates

But the real source of my fandom lies in what I see as a deeply kindred sensibility to my own, one that I suspect is at least in part generational (he’s just a couple years younger than me). Coates refuses many of the tropes that malignantly affect so many intellectuals (and politicians, and business leaders, and…) in this country — the demand to remain sanguine, to look for solutions, to hew to the pragmatically possible. Instead, he is interested in describing the existential burden of blackness in America, its deep historical origins, its insistent material specificity, its apparent ineluctability. In other words, it is precisely the fact that Coates rejects "any optimism about or faith in the possibility of national redemption" (as Williams complains) that most deeply resonates for me, not so much at the intellectual level, but really in terms of existential disposition. Coates reflects, albeit with a different topical focus and arrived at by way of a very different personal and intellectual path, the same attitude I myself have today (as expressed above all in the “Twin Insurgency” piece I did in 2014 and in the “Politics of the Post-Climate Change World” in 2011). For me, this sensibility looks backward with a somewhat bitter regret about the failed dreams of technocratic modernization (and, not at all unrelatedly, those of the civil rights movement), and forward with resignation toward the civilizational doom that runaway climate change promises. In other words, I share with Coates the sense of living in the aftermath of hope. It’s a post-Obama, post-Anthropocene sensibility: we no longer believe everything will eventually be OK, or even have much faith that it’s going to get much better. In fact, Coates and I both believe that in the long run, it will probably get worse. We’re both post-modernists in the Lyotardian sense: we are incredulous about both narratives of progress and narratives of agency.

All of this is a very long way to say that while I don’t disagree with what Williams is saying about Coates — that Coates believes that the world consists of individuals who lack agency and who are victims of structural forces beyond their ability to control or even to fully comprehend — I see this as a feature, not a bug. As to the fact that Coates seems to believe that some white people lead lives that are charmed in ways that a black man’s life never can be, I also agree with that. For those who choose to be complacent about both their privileges and the direction of the planet, all is indeed for the best because this is, at least for them and at least for the time being, in fact the best of all possible worlds. And I know it, because when I take off my intellectual hat and put on my party-boy hat, that’s exactly what it’s like for me.