Race and Romantic Visions: A Tragic Reading

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Johns Hopkins University
My dissertation explores a set of creative intersections between romanticism, black political thought, and Nietzschean philosophy. In so doing it asks two overarching questions. First, how do different ethical theories, philosophies of time and history, and conceptualizations of subjectivity and community suggest contending ways of understanding the roles that race and race-making play in modern life? Second, how can reflective black experiences of modernity shed light on discussions in political theory about the relationship between theory and history, the significance of identity, identification, and difference in democratic life, and the complex interrelations between affect, ethics, culture, and politics? Ultimately, I argue that a tragic vision of an unbalanced world neither governed by providence nor readily susceptible to human mastery provides a valuable lens through which to assess contemporary racial politics. Articulated through a series of engagements with the works of Sophocles, Immanuel Kant, Johann Herder, W. E. B. Du Bois, Friedrich Nietzsche, and James Baldwin, such a vision incorporates the crucial insights of the romantic vision (as found in Herder and Du Bois) regarding embodied subjectivity, the importance of belonging, and the deep plurality of values and cultural perspectives; but it resists romanticism’s organic social ontology and providential image of time. It emphasizes instead the creativity of becoming, elements of real uncertainty in life and action, and the importance of practices that foster existential affirmation. Tragic wisdom calls attention to the contingent, time-bound character of life and urges us to accept and affirm our entanglements in the inexorable flux of creation and destruction that gives shape to the world. It does so to encourage us to participate in those processes with less existential rancor. The point of tragic wisdom is to help us better care for the world, not abandon it; although skeptical of appeals to Revolution and Redemption, a tragic sense is not one of passive resignation, despair, or political quietism. Instead, by urging respect for the contingent, paradoxical, and unpredictable in life, tragic wisdom teaches a lesson of modesty and responsiveness out of which a noble ethic of solidarity, care for the world, and militant struggle may arise.
Political Theory, Racial Politics