Drucilla Cornell and Stephen D. Seely, The Spirit of Revolution: Beyond the Dead Ends of Man. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2016; 195 pages. ISBN: 978-0745690742.

Reviewed by Tracey Nicholls, Lewis University.

This book calls for a revolution that is urgent, necessary, and reminiscent of a slogan I walked past daily in Montréal during the 2012 student debt protests that became a province-wide popular affirmation of the value of higher education in a democratic society. Written on a huge red blanket (the red square being the symbol of these student protests) and hung from a third floor balcony was a hand-lettered declaration that translates as: “It is not a sign of good mental health to be well-adapted to a sick society.” After reading this book I think there is much to be said about the revolutionary value of that witty declaration. Like the pots-and-pans demonstrations of 1980s Chile that became les casseroles of 2012 Montréal, it is a visible sign of resistance that has an unquantifiable capacity to inspire the solidarity required for transformation of the world into one in which we can all be more human and more humane.

The argument Cornell and Seely offer as motivation for this transformation invokes commitments to revolution and to humanism that are—mistakenly, they contend—no longer seen as relevant in progressive circles. They reject the view that revolution is passé, along with the equation of the death of revolution and the death of Man, the latter of which is understood as “the unmarked subject” of European political philosophy: neither gendered nor racialized, possessed of ideal rationality, and perfectly equipped to take his place as the ruler of the natural and social worlds that exist by his authorization and for his benefit. Instead, Cornell and Seely assert the pressing need for a rethinking of our relationships with “the other forms of matter…with which we share the universe.” (3) This humility and respect for otherness is not, however, to be understood as a variant of currently fashionable post-humanism. Calling out that view as a form of quietism, they announce that they “have had quite enough of ‘contingent, fragile, insecure, and ephemeral lives’ [which sound] not like the imagination of living beyond Man, but rather like a meticulous description of the lives of the majority of the world under conditions of advanced capitalism right now”—essentially, the social privilege of “simplicity” in the global North obscuring human rights crises in the global South. (5) Pointing to the hope and possibility offered by alternative visions from outside the system, Cornell and Seely insist on new relations within the human social world and across species and forms of life; an end to capitalism with its “relentless pursuit of profit [and] dictates of surplus accumulation” (6); and a new political imagination that links revolutionary politics to a robust spirituality drawn from readings that productively intersect or “creolize” political thinkers in Western and non-Western traditions.

In the first part of their argument, Cornell and Seely draw on a range of feminist socialist critiques of capitalism to assert that “the transition to socialism entails the possibility of loving differently, which demands nothing less than the complete reconfiguration of erotic relations.” (15) Beyond making our conceptions of sexuality more human, this demands that we challenge the commodification of sexuality and the reduction of the erotic to sex that is normalized within a capitalist framework. Aligning themselves with 18th-century feminist philosophers Mary Wollstonecraft and Olympe de Gouges, they endorse the principle that there can be no truly ethical (let alone authentically erotic) relations between genders without overcoming the deforming and exploitative effects of sexual differentiation practiced by (capitalist) systems of phallocentric heterosexuality. The erotic transformation Cornell and Seely envision is drawn primarily from early 20th-century Marxist feminist Alexandra Kollontai, who understands love, sex, and eroticism as constitutive parts of a solidarity in which all are free to flourish, in creativity and in pleasure. If “the revolutionary struggle was to be a joyous affirmation of an empowered way of being-together” (23), then women must be freed from the biological destiny of reproduction announced by Freud. Severing ourselves from capitalism’s emphasis on the worker’s production and woman’s reproduction makes possible “a new erotic sensibility in which we desire ourselves and others in a completely different way.” (29) This new way of understanding the erotic, as a bridge between spirituality and politics, is grounded by Cornell and Seely in an “intrinsic connection between sensory experience and the imagination,” between bodies and minds—neither of which are free of the ideological conditioning of late-stage capitalism. (30) To buttress Kollontai’s vision, Cornell and Seely draw also on the work of Luce Irigaray, whose ethics of desire offers a conception of “between-us” that moves beyond questions of sameness and difference to richer considerations of how we support each other’s creative forces of desire. Embracing this erotic transformation “calls us to nothing more, but also nothing less, than a constant striving for a more joyful shared world.” (51) It is a transformation of “all ways of being together beyond simply ‘sex.’” (161)

Their ongoing commitment to synthesizing canonical and marginal texts is perhaps most provocative in the second chapter’s discussion of political spirituality through Michel Foucault’s radical, albeit often misunderstood, call for new arrangements of “bodies and pleasures.” (55) His work is important for their project because bringing about the conditions in which we can have these revolutionary bodies and minds effectively entails the political spirituality they read through a synthesis of History of Sexuality and Foucault’s less well known writings and interviews on the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Challenging a standard reading of Foucault as pessimistic about our possibilities for liberation, Cornell and Seely argue that when his call for care of the self is considered alongside his commentaries on the Iranian Revolution, Foucault emerges as passionately and thoughtfully engaged with a non-commodified conception of the erotic, the link between politics and spirituality. On their reading, the case of Iran showed Foucault that “revolution was not only fighting for another world, but rather fighting for a new truth and for how to be a different subject in this world.” (66) In Foucault’s view, caring for the self is a positive and desirable confrontation with power: “[his] point is not that everything is bad, but that everything is dangerous.” And if everything is dangerous, then, as Foucault put it, “we always have something to do.” (72) The erotic transformation that requires political spirituality “is not simply ‘sexual’.” Revolutionary change in our relations to our bodies and the bodies of others “demands constant ethical and spiritual work precisely because of the horrific toll that revolutionary struggles can take on individuals and collectives. Such a transformation demands…new forms of conducting ourselves individually and with others through new ways of relating to who we imagine ourselves to be.” (79)

From Foucault, Cornell and Seely introduce Derrida’s intergenerational ethics—based on the principle of “respect for those others who are no longer [and] for those others who are not yet there” (81)—as a framework for synthesizing the work of Caribbean philosophers Frantz Fanon and Sylvia Wynter. At the same time, the authors creolize Derrida, situating his work around Fanon and Wynter’s analyses of the harms and wounds of colonization and the obligations this psychic damage poses to all of us. While Fanon calls for the assertion of the full agency of the oppressed and colonized, Wynter provides resources for working through mourning and trauma in the narratives of decolonization.

Drawing on Fanon, Cornell and Seely argue that the damnation that colonization visits on the societies it purports to civilize “is a form of enforced psychotic reaction, because ‘sanity’ demands a projected future, which might be different and which might be ours.” (95) Colonization, in essence, forecloses the ethical world of the colonized, because the Manichean dichotomy of settler and native refuses to the latter any status beyond that of an “object to be dominated.” And it forecloses the social world, because the social is, in essence, a shared world of meaning, and sharing a world that contains “settlers” and “natives” is impossible in colonial relations. At best, a subordinated agency might be conferred upon the colonized native who tries to reconcile him- or herself to the dominant caste—but authentic and fully human agency is possible only from “the very moment of standing up to the colonizer.” (112) On Cornell and Seely’s reading of Fanon, “even [to] begin to heal the horrific wounds of living in that nightmare world…demands a full confrontation with the profound trauma of what has been imposed by colonization.” (109) The transformation that is required, then, is a return to an ethical and social world in which the colonized subjects could be seen as human beings. “Fanon’s insistence on erotic transformation—collective erotic transformation,” according to Cornell and Seely, “shows that the armed struggle is the beginning of new forms of collectivity, including those in which [contra Lacan] Woman is not there as a Thing to be cut/out as the only way to become a man,” but as an equal, fully human person. (112) Through the interplay and interrogation of canonical and subaltern texts, this book’s thesis emerges as a categorical rejection of the colonial world of les damnés de la terre, in favour of embracing an ethico-spiritual and political obligation to become “children of the revolution.”

Cornell and Seely see the political spirituality required by this shift from oppression to revolution as analogous to the “new ceremony” theorized by Wynter: a taking up of an ethical obligation of mourning and, through this mourning, acknowledging the humanity of lives that (European) colonization refused to see as human, e.g., the millions of people who died in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Recognition of the humanity that has been stripped from the victims is a collective revolutionary obligation, a constitutive part of “the new practice of being human together” that is theorized in both Fanon’s and Wynter’s blueprints for decolonization. (117) To rethink “Man” in more human terms is a necessarily shared project, on this view, and a crucial part of it is an understanding of the power of mythic narrative through which we can reconstitute the stories that allow us to make sense of our social world and our human possibilities. In Wynter’s work, this rethinking of how our cultural stories shape us shows putatively neutral conceptions of reason, science, and technology to have been embedded all along in colonial projects of dehumanization of the West’s others. In both Fanon and Wynter, Cornell and Seely find a sharpened and more detailed consideration of expansive intergenerational obligations: a fuller account of how to construct revolutionary solidarity, and more diverse visions of justice in a post-revolutionary future.

As evidenced by their analyses of Fanon, Foucault, and Wynter (among others), Cornell and Seely reject the privileged and sheltered world constituted and imposed by a particular and predominant vision of European Man, of “the unmarked subject.” The practice of creolization that is Cornell and Seely’s method of reading texts—a hybridity that sharpens the concepts of eroticism, spirituality, and social revolution and, at the same time, demonstrates their widespread appeal to theorists of human liberation—is testimony to the growing influence of Caribbean philosophical discourses that develop and celebrate creolization as a decolonizing episteme. And their commitment to the truly collaborative writing that produced this book further illustrates Cornell and Seely’s philosophical allegiance to “a thoroughly decolonized democratic socialist common world.” (146) This is a book that does what it urges: it builds new collective practices and perspectives that move us forward to a vantage point from which we can start to see the outlines of a world in which fully human flourishing is each person’s basic right and the entire human community’s shared project.