Home >> Volume 19 (Spring 2019) >> "Writing the Impossible": Saidiya Hartman and the Archive >> Lauren Nelson on "Sylvia Wynter: On Being Human as Praxis"

Lauren Nelson on "Sylvia Wynter: On Being Human as Praxis"

cover art for "Sylvia Wynter: On Being Human as Praxis"

Katherine McKittrick, ed.

Sylvia Wynter: On Being Human as Praxis

Duke University Press, 2015
290 pages
$26.95

Reviewed by Lauren Nelson
When Sylvia Wynter wrote, in the fall of 2003, that “the struggle of our times, one that has hitherto had no name, is the struggle against [Man’s] overrepresentation,” she made a critical intervention into postcolonial theory, science studies, and philosophy writ large. The central argument at the core of her seminal essay, “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom,” is that the “ethnoclass Man” (i.e. the white bourgeois male) has been historically produced as the yardstick that determines how all other forms of human life will be measured. This ethnoclass Man is a metric that produces, and makes commonsense, racialized, gendered, and economic violence. Wynter historicizes the formation of the subject from medieval Europe to the twenty-first century and argues that to be human is a praxis that counteracts the extent to which Man overdetermines the “genre of human.” Throughout Wynter’s oeuvre, she positions human as a subversive model of being that counters, at its every articulation, the dominant Western ontological order. Simultaneously a reflection on Wynter’s theoretical legacy and a collection of new work by the foremost scholars in the field, Sylvia Wynter: On Being Human as Praxis offers vital new engagements with the central tenets of Wynter’s work, asking us how we can continue to reinvent the human—as a verb rather than a noun—in our present geopolitical, ecological, and global conditions.


After a brief introduction, the collection begins with a lengthy conversation between Wynter and Katherine McKittrick, the editor of the collection. This chapter, titled “Unparalleled Catastrophe for Our Species?,” traces Wynter’s primary contributions to science studies and postcolonial theory, reinvigorating decades of scholarship with new insights that underscore the increasing importance of being human as praxis in an age of heightened nationalism, environmental degradation, and neoimperialism. Although Wynter’s discussion of science begins with a reading of the Copernican leap as counter to Christian theology, her interest in astronomy and the move toward institutionalized science in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is imbued with a concern for the contemporary climate crisis. She writes that the causes of global warming are “not human activities” and argues that an overrepresentation of Man-as-human continues to permeate global discourse. For example, Wynter states that it is Man as “homo oeconomicus” whose extractivist politics have caused widespread destruction, not indigenous peoples like the Masai who “have nothing to do with global warming!” Borrowing from Frantz Fanon, Wynter claims that the “science of the Word” is a vital challenge to our present episteme insofar as it dismantles the “genre of human” that the natural sciences have historically constituted, one which is “globally hegemonic,” “Janus-faced,” and “purely biocentric.” In its place, Wynter offers a hybrid being that is at once bios and mythoi to foreground the simultaneous continuity and discontinuity of the human with all other living beings. Aware that such a proposition demands an imaginative reinvention of all disciplinary lines of inquiry, Wynter spends significant time providing examples of the liberatory capacity of such a model. In many ways, the lengthy conversation between Wynter and McKittrick reads like a ‘state of the field’ overview of Wynter’s key concepts, refracted and reworked with contemporary politics.

The essays that compose the remainder of the volume follow a similar structural logic: each begins with a brief overview of a particular concept of Wynter’s before entering a discussion of how this concept resonates within a given case study. Although these chapters are relatively brief, they offer astonishing insight into their varied questions: How, for example, might we extend Wynter’s metacartography of Man into current depictions of poverty and urbanity in post-Katrina New Orleans? Or, how does the music of Jimi Hendrix produce a discursive space for imagining the interaction between science and emancipatory knowledge production? The former question, asked by Bench Ansfield in her essay “Still Submerged: The Uninhabitability of Urban Redevelopment,” brilliantly illustrates how the inner-workings of Man’s episteme belies metaphors of contamination in neoliberal narratives of poverty and urban spatial organization. Katherine McKittrick’s own essay, “Axis, Bold as Love: On Sylvia Wynter, Jimi Hendrix, and the Promise of Science,” points to how our present political spectrum (left-center-right) forecloses the possibility of fulfilling Wynter’s injunction to form a new science of the human. Although the case-studies of each individual contribution are heavily informed by Wynter’s oeuvre, they do not remain uncritical: take, for example, Denise Ferreira da Silva’s assertion that neither the fields of history nor science “provides helpful sites of useful analytical tools for the production of critiques of modern representation that would aid in the disassembling of disciplinary and biopolitical mechanisms of subjection and raciality.” Her essay, “Before Man: Sylvia Wynter’s Rewriting of the Modern Episteme,” concurs with Wynter’s impetus to illustrate how Foucault’s archeology of knowledge fails to consider colonial violence as co-constitutive of modernity, while still objecting to Wynter’s own methodological choices.

Other notable essays include Walter Mignolo’s examination of Wynter’s oeuvre as “decolonial scientia” that transgresses mandates of colonial knowledge in order to allow for critical readings of C.L.R. James’ Marxism and Fanon’s sociogeny, as well as Rinaldo Walcott’s reading of the Caribbean basin as a geopolitical zone that, in producing an ethics of being that is “yet to come,” undermines that project of European modernity. While Mignolo’s essay rereads the epistemological shifts of the Copernican and Darwinian epochs in order to illustrate how Wynter is herself revising scientific reason as decolonial, Walcott explores the Caribbean as a physical site that stages human-as-praxis, representing a constant negotiation of the particular rather than the universal. These essays take Wynter’s challenges as their starting points, but end by mobilizing her concepts to surprising ends. The essays in this collection are innovative, rather than derivative, and the reader watches these important scholars interrogate Wynter as much as they learn from her.

Sylvia Wynter: On Being Human as Praxis successfully interrogates the shortcomings of some current scholarship that, while invested in decolonizing minds, syllabi, and the increasingly corporate university, inadvertently reinstates the violent ontology of the human that was inaugurated in 1492. Even readers quite familiar with Wynter’s work are likely to gain new insight about the ways in which the surrounding academic discourse continues to reinstate the over-representation of Man. Wynter’s notoriously complex writing reveals new ways to inhabit many questions that drive twenty-first century cross-disciplinary scholarship—how to grapple with injustice in an era of climatic destruction, how to understand and disrupt the effects of our current political system, and how a “degodded” reason continues to inflect contemporary science. McKittrick makes clear that she seeks to avoid rehashing a mere overview of Wynter’s scholarship and, instead, seeks to comprehensively intertwine Wynter’s work with descendent departures. As such, this collection expertly anticipates an audience that may range from unfamiliar to well-acquainted with Wynter’s work. Ultimately, McKittrick as editor succeeds in her endeavor by assembling a volume that fantastically elucidates how Wynter “asks us to think carefully about the ways in which those currently inhabiting the underside of the category of Man-as-human—under our current epistemological regime, those cast out as impoverished and colonized and undesirable and lacking reason—can, and do, provide a way to think about being human anew.”