Afro-Asia from Vitalism to Solidarity
This book traces how Black and South Asian activists in the early twentieth-century used what W.E.B. Du Bois called the ‘hesitant’ field of sociology to imagine new anticolonial aesthetic forms and political solidarity. The book challenges pre-existing accounts of literary modernism and world literature by demonstrating the aesthetics of social scientific thought before the 1955 Asian African Conference at Bandung.
It is more than a mere coincidence that the major anticolonial and anti-racist agitators in the Indian Ocean region all received degrees in the social sciences from universities in the North Atlantic world at the beginning of the twentieth century. Jawaharlal Nehru, future prime minister of India, received a degree in political science; W.E.B. Du Bois, the famous Black thinker, received degrees in sociology; Kwame Nkrumah, the first president of Ghana, earned a degree in sociology; and B.R. Ambedkar, the famous Dalit activist, received degrees in sociology. Understanding this overlooked historical fact is an absolute necessity for accounting for the particular forms of anticolonial thought that emerge by the 1940s and 1950s. All of these thinkers received degrees in the social sciences at a point when they were still nascent fields of inquiry. Early twentieth-century sociology borrowed heavily from literature, vitalism, and philosophy as well as the natural sciences. William James noted that early social scientists wrote in such a way ‘that made biology and psychology continuous’. In 1905, Du Bois famously declared that sociology a ‘hesitant’ discipline, with the hope that its hesitation would make it particularly useful for anti-racist and anticolonial causes.
By the 1940s and 1950s, the transatlantic social sciences had turned to empirical methodologies to meet the needs of post-war universities in the US and the UK. In the Indian Ocean world, however, anticolonial agitators had left academia behind in favour of political activism, and therefore retained, amber-like, the modes of thought of earlier, more intellectually capacious lines of inquiry. It should be obvious that my interest here lies in mourning the loss of intellectual promiscuity in the post-war social sciences rather than charging anticolonial thinkers with colonial belatedness. In retaining an intellectual commitment to these earlier forms of inquiry, anticolonial thinkers in the Indian Ocean world were able to imagine a non-empirical and heterogeneous collective heralded under the rubrics of ‘Afro-Asian’, ‘coloured’, and, of course, the ‘wretched of the earth’.