mars 2, 2024

Recently Published Book Spotlight: Choose Your Bearing

10 min read
Recently Published Book Spotlight Choose Your Bearing | StirlingPhilosophy

Benjamin P. Davis is a postdoctoral fellow in African American Studies at Saint Louis
University. His recent book Choose Your Bearing: Édouard Glissant, Human Rights and Decolonial Ethics explores the work of Édouard Glissant as an ethical theorist, what Western nations owe to people around the world, and the importance of acting on our individual agency. In this Recently Published Book Spotlight, Davis discusses his motivation for writing this book, the need to reframe our understandings of obligation, and the impact he hopes his work will have in broadening students’ minds to the different forms philosophy can take.

What is this book about?

The book’s title comes from the Martinican poet and philosopher Édouard Glissant, whose 1990 book Poetics of Relation painted a picture of “the worldwide commercial market,” arguing that “[n]o matter where you are or what government brings you together into a community, the forces of this market are going to find you.” These market forces, he goes on, “must be answered with the total logic of your behavior… You must choose your bearing.” Glissant says that choosing such a bearing can be part of respecting the “right to opacity” of other cultures, meaning the right for Indigenous people and people of the African diaspora to pursue their cultures on their own terms—an increasingly difficult task amidst market forces that standardize global English, cause beaches to be turned into resort properties and land to be viewed as providing resources for sale. I read Glissant’s lines as a call to offer an ethical bearing that begins from the fact that we are entangled in a global market, which means that through our everyday items, we are connected or related to people across the world.

Choose Your Bearing is about how people around the world make demands on those of us in the West, where “the West” is understood less as a geographic place and more as a political project to institute values and ways of life. This book is about how the people who sew our clothes, mine the lithium that becomes our car batteries, or cut the sugar for our rum try to speak to us, those of us who update our wardrobes, drive hybrids, and enjoy a nightcap. The book observes that—despite our distance from Vietnam, Bolivia, or Martinique—the workers who produce the West’s commodities communicate with us by talking about their human rights. Choose Your Bearing suggests that through a dialogue with those to whom we are intimately connected, but whom we often don’t see, we have an opportunity to intentionally and carefully change our way of life.

Why did you feel the need to write this work?

I have been a bit frustrated with all the ethics books, critical theory, and climate journalism that never give us a path for moving forward. For instance, I learned about the state of the planet from Elizabeth Kolbert’s Field Notes from Catastrophe and The Sixth Extinction. But how should I change my actions in light of that new knowledge? Those books rarely give an answer to that question.

With all the uncertainty and anxiety in our time, many young people are turning to astrology. Given all our years of study—with all those books we make sure are our background for our Zoom calls—can’t we do better? Can’t we offer something more effective? Can’t we offer a path where we have agency, where our choices matter?

Choose Your Bearing looks to a Black Atlantic human rights archive and to contemporary Indigenous politics and offers several paths for action. One path starts from our need to re-frame obligation in a way that would allow for the forgiveness of debts Caribbean countries owe to Western banks. We are living in a moment of climate change caused by the industrial economic activities of “developed” countries in the West and “developing” countries trying to keep pace with the West. Climate change means stronger and more frequent hurricanes in the Caribbean. When hurricanes hit a country, such as Barbados, hospitals and schools are destroyed. The country needs money quickly to build back that infrastructure. Western financial institutions, which all along have funded and profited from the fossil-fuel economy that drives the hurricanes, then lend money to Barbados at credit-card-like rates. The predominant framing of obligation is that these countries then owe the West money. But as Abraham Lustgarten recently noted in a New York Times Magazine essay, there is another, more historical and nuanced way to think about the obligation at play here. “Barbados and the countries of the Caribbean are paying a tangible price now in lives and in dollars because of the emissions of wealthier nations,” Lustgarten wrote. He continued: “Perhaps the suggestion that lenders forgive debt isn’t about kindness but about obligation—about seeing it as a kind of back tax that they owe to society and to frontline societies, in particular.” Choose Your Bearing builds on such journalism to elaborate a sense of responsibility so needed in our entangled and changing world.

How is your work relevant to everyday life?

Amidst truly inept, nationalistic, jingoistic, and homophobic “leadership” in so many of our countries, many of us understand our possibilities as extremely confined. As I type this now, the Air Quality Index in St. Louis Missouri is 159, around the same as it is in Delhi and Hanoi today. It is this high because of ozone pollution from our factories and cars, as well as smoke from wildfires in Eastern Canada, and this much pollution in the air is harmful to everyone. What are my options if I can’t even go outside without having an asthma attack?

When I hear Indigenous leaders demand that Ecuador respect their environmental rights, I learn that I can also demand clean air, in terms of a human right, where I live. I also learn that respecting this right would require both the government to act and citizens to shift how we live.

Choose Your Bearing focuses on the everyday agency that we still have, pointing out that it is in the interest of the landholders and the oil companies that we understand our everyday lives as constrained and damned, and that we accept that constraint and damnation as our fate and simply invest in our retirement accounts, make rent, and look fashionable. It is very much our everyday actions and choices that can change our reality—whether we invest in predatory companies or divest from oil and occupation, whether we perpetuate cycles of consumption or live simply, whether we put our money in banks that fund pipelines or in local credit unions, whether we allow companies/states to privatize water or demand that it be a public good for all, whether we buy Teslas or come together and build public transit in our cities and across our countries, whether we invest in property and focus on housing values or frame housing as a human right meaning all should have shelter before some have multiple homes, whether we stay quiet in the midst of flagrant injustice so as to protect our jobs or talk about Ferguson and Flint and Palestine, whether we travel as tourists and perform our humanity in the way that the credit card and jewelry advertisements suggest or live according to a higher law of human possibility. These choices will determine whether we realize, as the World Social Forum puts it, that “another world is possible.”

What topics do you discuss in your book and why do you discuss them?

I talk about the ethical language that the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas has given us, the language of “the Other” who is unknowable to me yet who makes an infinite demand on me. This severe language has to a considerable extent become the ethical vocabulary for the line of Latin American philosophy that is increasingly called “decolonial philosophy.” When this vocabulary is taken out of Levinas’s religious sphere and used to describe concrete situations, philosophers end up talking about people who are absolutely “Other” in terms of race, gender, or faith tradition.

But following the anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot, I do not think that these others are so “Other.” I would rather start from the premise that they are very much human like the rest of us, and that because of the startling success of corporations in globalizing English and Coca-Cola as well as values and desires across the world, these others have no problem communicating with those of us in the West.

So I deflate difference in a time when it’s become fashionable to inflate it, and I do so because when we see others as striving and fallible and wonderful people—that is, as complicated human beings—we can begin to work with and respond to them, instead of hiding behind the claim that we could never understand them. After all, before we judge how different someone else is, maybe we should first listen and talk to them?

What else would you like to do with your research, if you could do anything? 

There are two related, but often separated, paths I would like to follow regarding my research moving forward. The first starts from dialogue with groups such as Al-Haq (“the truth” in Arabic), which studies human rights in a very “applied” way, never afraid to name names and speak truth to power. This is the research of the op-ed, the street, and the UN forum. It is research that speaks practice back to theory.

The second path acknowledges the limitations of this book and moves forward from them. For instance, one of my concerns in this book is that today’s social movements emerge quickly and fall away quickly. Indeed, it remains up to us to build a “movement of movements,” to use the political theorist Michael Goodhart’s phrase in his book Injustice. In Choose Your Bearing, I talk about connecting movements through the idea of “making kin,” meaning to consider humans to whom we are not biologically connected as our family, and to act with that responsibility to them in mind. But making kin is only a start. It is a practice; it does not offer the normative foundation that perhaps we need.

The other day another political theorist, Max Tomba, reminded me that while the history of natural law might sound conservative, it has also been a source of great transformative power, including in the writings of Frederick Douglass and W. E. B. Du Bois, as well as in the water wars in Cochabamba and at Standing Rock. It is to this sense of natural law—the insight that there is a higher law, and that creation, that the land, can teach us—that I would like to turn next. This would be the research of the library, the prayer camp, and the community study group. It is research, yes, but it is perhaps better understood as a form of worshipping the sacred that surrounds us.

What has influenced this work the most?

I have benefitted tremendously from a series of teachers who have encouraged me to write about Édouard Glissant, despite the fact that he is not usually considered a philosopher. Alejandro Vallega introduced me to Glissant’s work. Lucian Stone, Cynthia Willett, and John Lysaker supported me in writing major research projects about Glissant. And Valérie Loichot sat with me patiently as we studied Le discours antillais line by line. I am grateful to all of them.

As strange as it might sound to our contemporary ears, which tend to expect that we study what aligns with our ancestral identity (always understood through anachronistic national terms as we forget that Africa is the source of the human diaspora), this book on Caribbean philosophy was also influenced by global Indigenous politics, especially the way that the Xukuru, Lakota, and Anishinaabe nations have leveraged rights claims not just to make demands on the nation-states in which they live, but also to connect struggles and to promote a vision for how humans can live in right relations with the world around us. 

What effect do you hope your work will have?

I think that academic philosophy is a bit confused at present. The air outside is increasingly unbreathable, yet we remain worried about publishing in Q1 journals, and as a result, a very specific mode of Anglo-American philosophy takes hold in more and more places as people try to gain respect and tenure. What happened to examining our lives in this world, not another possible one? What happened to the Socratic sense of taking political risks, in dialogue with others, in the cities where we live?

This book suggests that some of the most interesting philosophy today is conducted outside of academic philosophy, especially in the scholarship and archives of Black Studies and Indigenous Studies, as well as in the political movements that actually talk about the air quality. I hope that undergraduate students will read the book and gain a sense that philosophy is more robust for being more engaged with the questions and movements of our time. Whether philosophy can regain its ancient promise of offering a way of life remains up to how all of us choose to practice it.

Maryellen Stohlman-Vanderveen headshot

Maryellen Stohlman-Vanderveen is the APA Blog’s Diversity and Inclusion Editor and Research Editor. She graduated from Smith College in 2019 with a Bachelor’s degree in Philosophy and a minor in Psychology. She is currently pursuing an MSc in Philosophy and Public Policy at the London School of Economics. Her research interests include conceptual engineering, normative ethics, political philosophy, and the philosophy of technology. Maryellen previously served as a 2019-20 Fulbright fellow to the Czech Republic and as a Morningside College Junior Fellow at the Chinese University of Hong Kong where she taught introductory ethics and service learning courses.