Cornel West


    When I first met Cornel West, in 1979 or ’80, I had been operating on the Eurocentric assumption that each of the three central philosophical traditions of Western culture—the German, the French, and the Anglo-American—had a proper style and language of its own. So I was wholly unprepared for Cornel’s disquisitions on Hegel, which he advanced, with great verve, in a thoroughly black style and idiom. I was thrilled. Happily, this exotism on my part soon faded. Many serious and not-so-serious conversations followed, though unfortunately they have become rarer as the years have passed: Cornel simply has no time. Having emerged as one of the leading black “organic” intellectuals in the United States, he is often on the road five days a week, speaking to an astonishingly wide range of people in an astonishingly wide range of places. And when we do have a chance now to “dialogue” (a favorite, apposite expression of his), it is not only exhilarating but frustrating: exhilarating because I am reminded that even if Cornel is here there and everywhere, he still reads everything, virtually, and can talk about it all in illuminating ways. As is the case with all great conversationalists, he has the gift of putting others at ease. That is why dialoguing with him is also frustrating: time being scarce, one tries to cover too many things. The present interview is no exception.
    Our conversation here is marked, for better or worse, by obvious friendship. Familiarity, in the best of cases, makes for openness—what diplomats call frankness and others call disagreement. In that spirit I have tried to push Cornel a bit. He has become, in his words, a cultural critic rather than a strict philosopher, by which he means, I think, that his Gramscian and prophetic role has taken over his theoretical pursuits proper. Those who know him know by now the themes he tends to “highlight” (another typical and symptomatic Cornelism). Hence the following conversation reflects an attempt to do more than once again highlight the highlights; it is an attempt to see where he is heading with them.

    ANDERS STEPHANSON: Since our first interview, in 1987, you’ve become a lot more public as a public intellectual. You’ve even graced the pages of Time, which is about as middlebrow American as you can get. So what happens to oppositional intellectuals when the media picks them up?

    CORNEL WEST: You do get “mainstreamed”—there’s a selective appropriation of certain motifs in your work that are considered safe and acceptable. In my case the call for a multiracial alliance along radical democratic lines, and the call for redistribution of wealth downward, take the form of, “He thinks blacks and whites


    Knowledge of art is not enough to make one a critic, any more than knowledge of art is enough to make one an artist. The student who turns to art in order to avoid reflecting upon his condition may become a specialist, a scholar, a connoisseur, but not a critic. For the latter exists through curiosity, indignation, and the widest practice of intellectual freedom.

    —Harold Rosenberg

    THE DAY OF ART CRITICISM’S eclectic and accessible generalists—like Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg—are long gone. Certainly this has something to do with the increasing professionalization of the practice of