A. Shahid Stover, Epistemic Ruptures, Insurgent Philosophy. New York: Cannae Press, 2022; 131pp. ISBN: 978-1733551038.

Reviewed by Devin Zane Shaw, Douglas College


Sometimes it seems that the field of philosophy is populated by archivists and specialists. The former catalogue the history and development of the great systems of philosophy, and they can act as gatekeepers when they suggest that the validity of philosophical critique rests on its exegetical proficiency. As for the latter, they handle narrow problems with a methodology borrowed, so they say, from the sciences; this analytic-“scientific” approach introduces heteronomy into the dialectical method of philosophy. Despite the controversies that arise among the two groups or between them, philosophy often lives a quiet and uneventful life in the halls of academia.

Shahid Stover’s book Epistemic Ruptures, Insurgent Philosophy emerges from a very different milieu. He writes, often in the furtive hours before work, from within New York City’s “eroding literary café culture,” moving within and throughout the city, from Washington Heights outwards, sometimes ending up in the more familiar literary territories of lower Manhattan, but with an “epistemic rhythm” animated by “the socio-ontological underground of modernity” and the effervescent insurgency of Black liberation struggle. There is a sense of urgency and gravity to his work that cuts through the formalism of academic discourse. Since I am an academic writing a review of a non-academic book, let us dispense with one problem immediately: Stover notes that there are academics “who write with emancipatory relevance and epistemic freedom from disciplinary constraints” (48–49). His critique instead focuses on academic practices that seek to make peace with what he calls the normative gaze of the western imperial mainstream. Western imperial power is a “comprehensively administered power structure of racist dehumanization and coloniality” that seeks to reduce human “being” to mere objecthood, and its normative gaze seeks to naturalize this power structure and stultify the emancipatory possibilities of human subjectivity and struggle (130). He argues that

Black liberation discourse, in venturing forth unremittingly from the socio-ontological underground of modernity, confronts the normative gaze of a western imperialist continuum without need of established structures of meaning as its epistemic foundation, save for the trajectory of its own discursive movement towards emancipatory praxis (50–51).

Stover calls his insurgent philosophy “existential liberation critique,” and this philosophy draws its energy from the “underground of modernity,” which he glosses as the “wretched of the earth” or “race, class, or international outcasts” who form a dehumanized underclass that receives neither political nor ethical consideration from the normative gaze (130). His work is informed by Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Frantz Fanon, and it is unique in its perhaps paradoxical attempt to call back to the definition of imperial power as antiblack coloniality while refusing nationalist remedies. There is in Stover’s thought an embrace of emancipatory universality, which is the hallmark of existentialism, that places Black liberation discourse at the center of its conceptual constellation. I want to show that Epistemic Ruptures, Insurgent Philosophy is an important contribution to existentialism studies in particular and radical philosophy more generally.

Epistemic Ruptures, Insurgent Philosophy is divided into four sections, most of which contain several short, thematically connected essays (some were previously published in The Brotherwise Dispatch, which he edits). The section “Critical Interventions” includes reviews of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me and Sebastian Berg’s Intellectual Radicalism After 1989. Given that Coates’s book is now sometimes included in existentialism courses, Stover’s review is a welcome intervention. He recognizes Coates as a contemporary progressive Black literary voice whose work attempts to understand how Black being-in-the-world is historically situated by the western imperial normative gaze as a social pathology and ontological “problem,” and he summarizes Between the World and Me as a “a sincere literary attempt to convey the historical magnitude and existential severity of this perpetual question” (57). However, for Stover, Coates fails to make the leap from understanding oppression to emancipatory engagement. First, Coates conflates survival and liberation, “thus suppressing questions of freedom by offhandedly dismissing the dynamic correlation between human agency and emancipatory practice” (59). Then, along with epistemic foreclosure of questions of freedom and liberation, there is “a conceptual overreliance on ‘the body’ littered throughout the book, thus promoting a continued reification of lived Black experience as ‘objecthood,’” which inadvertently aligns with the contours of the normative gaze of modernity (59). Stover contrasts Coates’s failure with Fanon’s decolonial phenomenological method. Fanon also interrogates the meaning of the body within the milieu of the normative gaze, but he does so to suggest points of resistance that open possibilities of human subjectivity and emancipatory praxis. Though Stover is directly criticizing Coates, I detect an indirect criticism of the conceptual apparatus of Afropessimism. 

The third section, “Reveries of the Ronin,” explores three main themes: the figure of the Ronin (a samurai without a master) as a metaphor for the insurgent philosopher, the temporality of writing, and the sociality of literary café culture. These essays ruminate on the café as a meeting place of the underground of modernity, but also as a site not too sheltered from the normative gaze and—as a police siren punches through the din—its objective violence. 

The final section, the “Emancipatory Epilogue,” is one essay, “global pandemic, Black liberation, and the plague of empire.” In my view, this essay presents a contemporary version of Sartre’s argument in “Freedom and Responsibility” from Being and Nothingness. The radicality of Sartre’s argument tends to be blunted decades after the end of World War II because readers tend to readily align their imagined choices with Sartre’s underlying justification of the French Resistance, rather than seeing the free choices of 1943 as open questions (which they may have decided otherwise!). Stover’s emancipatory epilogue places the reader in the middle of the uncertainties of the pandemic and the plague of the neo-colonial police, right on the scene of George Floyd’s murder and the subsequent Uprising. Stover’s analyses point toward responsibility and emancipatory possibilities—under the weight of structural, objective violence—that open live discussions about existential freedom and practice today.

For in refusing to look at George Floyd and in him an affirmation of our shared humanity, neo-colonial police everywhere must now deal with having to in the whirlwind of insurrection-in-itself. Indeed, and in looking at him we a binding universality of the human condition rekindled in the lucid flames of Black Rage as Molotov cocktails fly against hypermilitarized police repression of freedom and dissent, police vehicles that run over and through protesters end up overturned or set on fire, and at the epicenter where the murder of George Floyd took place, an entire neo-colonial police precinct burns to the ground as insurrection-in-itself spreads throughout the streets of Empire. (107–108)

Stover’s analysis demands that the reader place and see themselves in the whirlwind: where does one become committed in the midst of insurrection, police repression, and far-right system-loyal vigilantism? It is not enough to retreat to the imagined position of a universal legislator, standing above the fray.

Thus, Stover’s book concludes where, in a sense, his previous book began. If that book, Being and Insurrection (2019), seeks to put insurrectionary practices back front and center in existential thought (to think the movement from insurrection-in-itself to insurrection-for-itself), then Epistemic Ruptures, Insurgent Philosophy begins with a concomitant problem: what philosophical method is adequate to insurgent practice? Although there are certainly philosophers who seek to tie philosophy back to lived experience and practices, Stover jolts the discourse and provokes an obvious though perhaps unexamined methodological question: how would an institutional or merely “oppositional” philosophy be adequate to emancipatory, revolutionary struggles?

The first and most extensive section of the book outlines the epistemic ruptures between insurgent philosophy and two other more predominant approaches: institutional philosophy and “oppositional” philosophy. Institutional philosophy accepts and works within the parameters of the normative gaze of modernity, and therefore Stover observes that there is a clear epistemic rupture between this approach and insurgent philosophy; there is between them an “antagonistic reciprocity of epistemic alterity” (95). This critique of institutional philosophy is widely shared within Africana philosophy or Black Existentialism. Indeed, one could alternatively defend the stronger thesis that institutional philosophy does not merely work within, but also historically helped and continues to help construct this normative gaze. 

Stover advances the critique of philosophy by demarcating how an “oppositional” philosophy emerges against institutional philosophy and yet stops short of the insurgent, emancipatory project.

Oppositional philosophy regardless of whether in concert with continental or analytical traditions, by deriving fundamental epistemological precepts and core teleological conclusions from modernity itself, ultimately reproduces a western imperialist continuum even while challenging its contemporary guise[s]. (25)

In other words, while oppositional philosophy takes a critical distance against the western imperialist normative gaze, it continues to work within its guiding parameters. Two examples suffice. One variation of oppositional philosophy criticizes neoliberal capitalism, but ultimately seeks to reconfigure capitalism on the historical model of the social welfare state. Consequently, both capitalism itself and the numerous apparatuses of gender and/or racial oppression that historically conditioned the functioning of the social welfare state remain unexamined. In another case, Stover notes how “well intentioned oppositional strategies meant to frame Black liberation discourse within the stable rationality of popular accessibility” might “necessarily facilitate an epistemic subjugation of insurgent thought by the normative gaze of western imperialist power” (28). A critical approach to philosophy often frames its discourse as a countervailing project opposed to the institutional project of philosophy. Stover draws a line of demarcation between an oppositional philosophy that focuses on critique, renovation, and political reform and an emancipatory, insurgent philosophy that seeks to find its people on “the streets of history” (102).

I find that there is much common existential ground between my own philosophy of antifascism and Stover’s insurgent philosophy. However, I am puzzled by his disavowal of Marxism and communism. Despite the rich manifold of encounters between Stover’s intellectual forebears and Marxism, and despite his use of class categories and concepts such as imperialism, he reduces Marxist philosophy to its most mechanistic models, which are frankly dogmatic and defunct. His critique leans heavily on Sartre’s “Materialism and Revolution,” which I believe is limited in its application to the mechanistic model upheld by the French Communist Party and other Soviet-aligned parties at the time. It is worth considering that a similar critique was also advanced within a Marxist milieu by the Johnson-Forest Tendency (led by C.L.R. James and Raya Dunayevskaya) during that period in their text The Invading Socialist Society (co-authored with Grace Lee Boggs as well). In addition, one must consider that Sartre, in Search for a Method, recast existentialism as an ideology that works with, though retains a degree of autonomy from, Marxist philosophy. Putting the exact terms aside (Sartre’s opposition of ideology/philosophy), Sartre’s “method” is not too different from the way that Stover is able to reference class structures and imperialism and take their meaning for granted, given their currency in Marxist and Black liberation discourses, in order to handle the formulation or reformulation of collective, subjective praxis. 

Moreover, while the disavowal of Marxism is a particular tension within the movement of Stover’s text, there is a distinct lack of problems and questions generated by gender oppression in his analysis. Beauvoir brought the relations of gender, freedom, and oppression into existential liberation critique, and questions raised based on those relations cannot be deferred. The underground of modernity is definitely populated by race, class, and gender outcasts, and insurgent philosophy cannot leave some of them aside.

These critical remarks should not undermine the relevance and importance of Stover’s work. One should not mistake existential liberation critique for a narrow application of a specialized academic field. Instead, insurgent philosophy poses a serious methodological and existential challenge to the institution of philosophy, reverberating within the academic halls that have served to narrow critical theory, antiracist theory, or philosophies of struggle into merely oppositional philosophies. We’re on the move, from university halls and paywalled journals to the streets of the socio-ontological underground of modernity. Stover’s Epistemic Ruptures, Insurgent Philosophy is an urgent and compelling contribution to existential and emancipatory thought today.