"Beyond Man" is an analysis of race, religion, and activism.
In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured authors are An Yountae and Eleanor Craig. Yountae is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at California State University, Northridge. Craig is Program Director and Lecturer, Committee on Ethnicity, Migration, and Rights, Harvard University. Their book is Beyond Man: Race, Coloniality, and Philosophy of Religion.
Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
An Yountae (AY): I hope Beyond Man will help readers better understand the complex ways in which religion constitutes and mobilizes politics, especially in a time where we see the rise of fascist regimes and politics. The key issues that lie at the heart of today’s social and political concern are driven by the problem of growing inequality at the global level. And the problem of inequality, while largely attributed to the issue of political economy and class, is inseparable from race. Both the global and the domestic geography of wealth distribution draws a stark division along the racial line. Beyond Man points at race and religion as the crucial unit or constellation that was instrumental in the formation of colonial modernity. The long history of racial configuration since the pre-modern Europe was also a process of religious reconfiguration. Managing religion and race has always been the core constitutive function of colonialism/coloniality.
Eleanor Craig (EC): Beyond Man demonstrates the distinctive roles that European Christianity has played in the projects of conquest and racialization that Yountae references. For these reasons, Beyond Man contributes to conversations that seek to understand, “How did we get here?” Here, a time of globalized racial capitalism and deadly, carceral militarization justified by racial and societal hierarchies that are just intuitive to those who dominate. Here, a time of ongoing coloniality in both settler and so-called postcolonial contexts.
And also, here, a time of profound resistance. J. Kameron Carter writes poetically about fugitive modes of Blackness that refuse to be consumed and digested by the colonial political machinery. Mayra Rivera’s chapter on Sylvia Wynter shows just how variable and complex the relationship between religion and race can be. One of the constant arguments running through Beyond Man is that western philosophical worldviews have never gone unopposed or unanswered.
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
EC: Philosophers usually trail activists and organizers in understanding the present and what needs to be done. Because of publishing timelines, we are already in a different moment than when these chapters were written! Still, I hope that activists and organizers find places of alignment and places to pose new questions. I hope that there is a sense of affirmation—that they find continuities with the modes of resistance we are writing about that can fuel the imagination and give strength. My hope is to follow and support the directions those on the ground would want to take and I welcome that feedback. My contact with activist worlds usually isn’t about directing campaigns or organizing protests, but helping to hold spaces where those who are doing that work can reflect and regroup. Perhaps this book can be one of those spaces! I want to continually be in shared efforts to find and create alternatives to what exists.
AY: The powerful role of religion in mobilizing movements and imagining an otherwise. Religion’s constitutive role in the creation and the maintenance of communities, relations, and desires. We refuse to confine religion to a narrow concept. By religion we mean a deeper dimension of life, a certain affect, symbolic and material capacity or imagination to relentlessly seek an alternative way of relating to the self and each other. The imagination and the praxis of mobilizing a different way of being, a different mode of social relations is itself an active philosophical intervention, an active religious intervention.
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?
AY: I’d like the reader to unlearn the simple binary of religion and the secular. This binary is rooted in a narrow definition of religion and it basically projects the West-centric definition of religion as a universal category. It often foments an all-too-easy dismissal of religion and an uncritical acceptance of the myth of the secular. It inculcates the biased association of religion with traditional values often incompatible with critical and rational worldviews while equating the secular with the normative status associated with liberal values of progress and equality. The different essays included in Beyond Man commonly point out that the presumable secularity of the western liberal order is equally as theological—in that it is ridden with ideologically loaded values, sectarian worldviews, exclusionary norms, and as dogmatically positioned as any religion/theology would do. When we uncritically accept this problematic binary, it makes us blindly embrace the ideal of the secular that runs on the premise of its colonial/white/hetero-patriarchal/capitalist theology while losing sight of the myriad struggles and imaginations that religion has continuously inspired.
EC: Another thing that I think contributors are on the same page about—less an ideology, perhaps, than a methodological point—is that philosophy always happens in a context. This is true for Hegel, or Césaire, or those theorizing through religious practices who may or may not record their analysis of the world in writing. And contexts are complex, laden with implied alternatives and decisions, all viewed through finite human lenses.
It’s an amazing feeling to be reading philosophical work that makes you see something about the world with sudden clarity. I live for that. But I also find that I increasingly need to study history to do philosophy. This can allow us to hold an individual’s important insights alongside not only their shortcomings, but the ways that they did harm (see Vincent Lloyd’s chapter on C.L.R. James). Beyond Man might help to unlearn the impulse to want someone out there to have already done the work of interpreting our present, to come to terms with the fact that it’s something we have to keep doing.
Who are the intellectual heroes that inspire your work?
EC: I love that this question follows the previous one, because in spite of what I just said, I do have heroes. Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s work is so precise and so capacious, always both at once. She thinks like an activist (which she is, in addition to being a scholar), meaning that there is simultaneous emphasis on analysis and imagination. If you want to understand the relationships between militarism and mass incarceration, settler colonialism and racial capitalism, or US-based movements and planetary or transnationalist frameworks for resistance, Gilmore is essential! She doesn’t directly appear in Beyond Man but her repeated reminders that everything must change (because abolition requires changing everything) are like a low hum in the background.
Grace Lee Boggs is another, for many reasons. What’s speaking to me most in this moment is her recognition that we have to be willing to constantly reassess what we think we know. What we’ve understood about the world is always in motion, there is always more happening than we can really grasp, and young people are necessary leaders.
AY: Frantz Fanon and Edouard Glissant. I admire the relentless pursuit to build a new world that both thinkers have demonstrated. Aside from the well-known contribution Fanon’s analysis of colonial relations and politics has made to anti/post/decolonial thinking, his writings are filled with strong registers of overwhelming affects that reveal the tensions, contradictions, and struggles marking a young man, a human being who lived a life so intensely. What I appreciate is how these wide-ranging affects are ultimately channeled through love (for others) and passion (for a new world). Glissant has gifted us with many conceptual tools that help to create a new method for thinking about the world—a method centered in the experience of the Black/Atlantic/Caribbean.
In what way does your book help us imagine new worlds?
AY: The figures and ideas our contributors engage in their essays are not necessarily thinkers who philosophized explicitly about religion and God. Rather, they are mostly thinkers who creatively articulated different ways to imagine and build new worlds. Thinking alongside these figures and ideas will hopefully help readers disarticulate various categories, assumptions, and norms that often reinforce colonial forms of knowing. The act of imagining and building new worlds is itself a philosophical and religious interpretation of the world.
EC: I agree that Beyond Man is doing these two things at once. It is taking apart colonialist and racializing thought processes to examine how they constitute the world we are in, but also trying to think with those who have been imagining new worlds all along. What I loved most about working on Beyond Man was that there are so many worlds present in this book. In spaces of revolution, fugitivity, and anti-colonial resistance we see whole worlds being created, challenged, redefined, and defended. I hope that readers will be drawn to go deeper with the contexts our contributors are writing about. Perhaps these chapters can also help us to see more clearly the worlds that are present now, so that we can understand our own relationships to what is happening and figure out what we want to participate in making grow.
Roberto Sirvent is editor of the Black Agenda Report Book Forum.