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Riddling toward Knowledge

In The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois uses allusions to the Platonic Socrates to reconfigure the soma-sema dialectic between body and soul. As Cowherd 2003 has shown, Du Bois gives this metaphysical and broadly social concept a sharply racial overlay. It is not simply that everyone’s soul is trapped in its body or that this recognition should make us value the disembodied and eternal over the corporeal and ephemeral; rather, Du Bois adds that the souls of black people are also trapped by the social structures and physiognomic stereotypes of American racism. In this paper, I put Du Bois’s adaptation of this Platonic theory into conversation with his comments in Souls about a “riddle of existence” (2008: 58) or “riddle of the world” (73) and analyze this combination via the biopolitical theory of Agamben.

Du Bois arranges his version of the Socratic quest for self-knowledge (including the soma-sema condition) with a contrapuntal theme drawn from Oedipus’s riddle (compare Hubbard 2001). The Theban and Egyptian sphinxes again allow him to draw contemporary racial politics into the mix, and the transformation of a quest into a riddle shows that the Delphic injunction to “know yourself” now involves not just the hard work of Socratic discourse but also the riddle-master’s ability to see the world differently. As when Diogenes the Cynic presented Plato with a plucked chicken to confound the definition of man as a featherless biped that Socrates developed in Statesman (Diog. Laert. 6.40), modern inflections of the anthropological riddle demand that layers of cultural sediment be scraped away. Would the Theban sphinx have accepted “[wo]man” or “[black] man” as a viable answer? In Souls, Du Bois shows (even in his fierce responses to Booker T. Washington) that better answers to the sphinx’s riddle will emerge not just from an individual’s careful thinking but from a broad social movement leading to the moment when “America shall rend the Veil” (2008: 176) that keeps us engaging with shadows on the wall.

Agamben helps refine this approach, because he asserts (following Foucault) that sovereign power is predicated on the control of biological life (i.e. “bare life” or zoê, as opposed to a “way of life” or bios). The violent attenuation of life to bare life, as effected by systems of domination such as that of American slavery, amounts to the inversion of sovereign power, which “realizes itself by simply taking away its own potentiality not to be” (1995: 46). In his early work, Agamben often seems to envision such systems in purely explosive terms, such that he laments that revolutionary and sovereign actions cannot be adequately distinguished (1995: 43). Yet Du Bois’s arguments highlight both the applicability and shortcoming of such thinking. For many years in America, the black, African body certainly constituted a “state of exception” that stripped such bodies of their humanity, but the violent imposition of sovereign power that concluded the Civil War certainly did not put any sharp or definitive end to that culture. Rather, the progress that has been made in terms of racial politics has been a protracted process.

In more recent work, Agamben has described an “anthropological machine” (2004) that affirms and denies the personhood of certain humans. Du Bois’s description of riddling toward knowledge in Souls shows how this anthropological machinery can be adjusted without wholly remaking society in a cataclysmic moment, such as that which brought an end to the biopolitical horrors of the Nazi camps. Du Bois demonstrates that biopolitical order can be challenged, reimagined, and reconfigured by insisting that we view the condition of bare life as a contested space (an idea suggested, in different terms, by Ziarek 2012). Even where his specific hopes for society have not been realized, his creative presentation of new perspectives on classical models and American racial politics have contributed to the goal of dismantling any racial foundation for contemporary anthropological machinery.