The Racial Discourses of Life Philosophy: Négritude, Vitalism, and Modernity

Winner of the Jeanne and Aldo Scaglione Prize in Comparative Literary Studies in 2010. The Prize citation reads:

"Donna V. Jones’s Racial Discourses of Life Philosophy: Négritude, Vitalism, and Modernity is a groundbreaking study of négritude and its major theorists, the poets Léopold Senghor and Aimé Césaire, that examines their adaptation and transformation of the philosophies of vitalism proposed by Henri Bergson. Carefully tracing the tradition of Western modernity that posits the mechanical state and mechanism as its dominant forms, Jones shows how Senghor and Césaire rework “vital force” in their metaphysics and poetics and how—even as it is implicated in forms of racism and colonialism— vitalism remains an important influence on modern discourses of postcolonialism and racial emancipation. Expansive in its range and precise in its readings, the book invites a significant rethinking of important movements and philosophies of the twentieth century."

"The Racial Discourses of Life Philosophy is likely to restart the necessary rereading of Négritude under the light of the philosophies of Henri Bergson, Teilhard de Chardin, and others that Négritude engages in dialogue and through which it is constituted. Following on the heels of Léopold Senghor's centenary, this book marks the starting point of a renewed approach." — Souleymane Bachir Diagne, Columbia University

"Donna V. Jones's magisterial book reveals how race discourse in interwar Europe was appropriated by anticolonialists in order to position Négritude as the regenerative counterpart to a moribund Europe. Jones also draws on her historical findings to throw critical light on the afterlife of vitalism in the thought of such contemporary theorists as Gilles Deleuze, Antonio Negri, Giorgio Agamben, and Elizabeth Grosz. Jones enriches our understanding of what she perceptively terms 'postmodern vitalism.' This is a remarkable achievement, and Racial Discourses of Life Philosophy will have a significant impact on many disciplines, including African and Caribbean studies, art history, comparative literature, French studies, history, and philosophy." — Mark Antliff, Duke University

"In this remarkable study, Donna V. Jones not only examines the influence of Bergson on Senghor, Cesaire, and their disciples, but also the vital connections between life philosophies in the West and the structure of thought from which the expressive strategies of Negritude derive." — F. Abiola Irele, Harvard University

"This book brings together Donna V. Jones's impressive knowledge of nineteenth-century German hermeneutic and philosophical traditions with her critique of colonialism. It shows, in particular, the ways in which the rise of racial discourse drew upon vitalist traditions. Through an erudite and striking comparative reading of Aimé Cesaire and Léopold Senghor, Jones delineates two very different trajectories for the vitalist tradition within twentieth-century black thought." — Judith Butler, University of California, Berkeley

"Jones’s study makes an excellent case for being wary about some of the repercussions for what she identifies as a New Bergsonism. Jones’s careful genealogical approach identifies certain risks in Bergson’s vitalism, particularly the manner in which race stands for God in Bergsonism’s evolutionary schema...This careful study outlines the problems of an uncritical return to Bergson ...Jones’s nuanced analysis parses out what she sees as a potentially critical vitalism in Aimé Césaire and Leopold Senghor’s oeuvres." — José Esteban Muñoz, Women and Performance

"Rigorous textual work and provocative intervention in the history of ideas, emerges as an absolutely crucial book...fundamentally changes our understanding of the Negritude movement... Jones wants us to be wary, not simply dismissive, of the implication of Negritude in the racial discourses of vitalism and life philosophy. For anyone working on these issues in the future, Jones has staked out a very specific and very reasonable position, rooted in textual analysis and creative theoretical conversation about traditions, figures, and the deeply complex intellectual heritage of Negritude...To be plain, this book changes all the terms of discussion. All for the better without question." — John Drabinski, Journal of French and Francophone Philosophy

“Jones’ reading is in fact definitive of how both imperialist racialism and anticolonial revolt came to be implicated in life philosophy…[I]n its study of vitalist philosophy and racial discourse it raises important questions about the political legacies of Bergsonianism and their rehistoricization as theoretico-metaphysical ‘truths’. As such, Jones’ study will be of interest to scholars in the fields of comparative literature, philosophy, poetics, and, in particular, modernist theories of race.”--David Marriott, This Year’s Work in Critical and Cultural Theory

“The centrality of ‘life’ to contemporary theory from the misery of Agamben’s bare life to the prodigality of post-Deleuzean vitalism is self-evident…The importance of Donna V. Jones’ intervention is not simply that it tries to take the measure of vitalism but that it places the history of vitalism in its fraught dialogue with the questions of race discourse…Crucial to this study is the sense of the perpetual attraction of cultural vitalism as a source of resistance to the  deadening of cultural and political forms…One of the signal achievements of Jones’ work is the critical mapping of vitalism and its particular forms…This offers a series of valuable insights…Jones suggests that vitalist traces remain within some unlikely places in contemporary theory and critique…In terms of the issues raised by this historical analysis for contemporary theoretical articulations of vitalism, Jones suggests new critical pathways…Her return to the interwar crisis and birth of cultural vitalism offers an uncanny reflection on our own moment…Jones’ sensitive historical reconstruction allows us…to find a better way to pose the problem of life”-- Benjamin Noys, Radical Philosophy

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“While conceding that ‘almost all of the work on Bergson today is sympathetic’, Jones boldly sets out a case that ‘he opened the door to the spiritualist racialism to which European thought succumbed in the interwar years’…Jones’s route from 19th-century Germany, via Bergson’s France, to 20th-century Négritude writers is complex, but along the way she usefully considers Bergson’s lesser-known text Comedy and provides an interesting if brief case study of D.H. Lawrence…there are many insights here which will stimulate further enquiry by scholars of race and modernism.” --Susan Reid, Journal of Postcolonial Writing

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“Jones is able to clarify the roots, evolution, philosophical and political implications of different brands of vitalism in a concise and illuminating fashion… Aware of Jones’ earlier criticisms of Deleuze, the reader is able to grasp the ambivalence of her assessment of Césaire’s achievement at this point in her analysis. Indeed, Jones shows us a Césaire caught between two contradictory impulses. On the one hand, his efforts to pursue “lines of flight” from imposed racial identities see him apparently eschew limiting forms of essentialism. On the other hand, his affirmation of positive difference demands he find some foundation for that affirmation and this can lead him to appeals to African blood .. her analysis runs the risk of “overemphasizing the importance of Bergson to Senghor and Césaire”. Indeed, the reader may legitimately wonder why such precedence is given to Bergsonism as an explanation for Senghor’s conservatism….overall her study is detailed, incisive, and stimulating, representing an important and original intervention into debates around both the influence of vitalism on current critical theory and the legacies of negritude.”--Jeremy F. Lane, H-France Review

"Jones traces not only the vitalist elements in the discourse of negritude, but also the racialist logics in life philosophy. Given the recent resurgence of interest in life philosophy and the notion of the biopolitical, this strikes me as an extremely important theoretical intervention."--Amy Allen, Parents Distinguished Research Professor in the Humanities, Dartmouth College 


Donna V. Jones
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