Cornel West Ath Talk discusses loss of hope, nihilism of modernity

West’s talk chronicled his reflections on race and how its role in our society have shifted in the 30 years since he published “Race Matters.” (Courtesy: Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

 In anticipation of Cornel West’s talk, the packed Athenaeum teemed with excitement and joy. On March 23, the 30th anniversary of his seminal book “Race Matters,” Cornel West spoke with Claremont McKenna College philosophy professor Briana Toole.

West is a prominent left-wing social activist, academic, philosopher and public intellectual. He has served as honorary chairman for the Democratic Socialists of America, published over 10 books and held professorships at Harvard, Yale and Princeton, among others. 

West’s talk chronicled his reflections on race and how its role in our society have shifted in the 30 years since he published “Race Matters,” as well as how we ought to grapple with the widespread depression and nihilism resulting from the turbulent political climate of today. 

Toole stressed the importance of West’s talk in our present moment.

“[West] is really good at reaching across the aisle and trying to talk in a language that both republicans and liberals will be acceptable towards,” Toole said. “That’s important because we can’t exist in echo chambers…that’s how you end up in a society that’s stalled. That’s how we got where we are now.”

Rukmini Banerjee CM ’24, a Marian Miner Cook Woolley Fellow and planner of the event, discussed the significance of “Race Matters” in her academic and social justice journey.

“Cornel West is a towering figure in the academic community and in activist circles because of the way in which he realizes the idea of critical consciousness and learning for the purposes of liberation,” she said. “The things that we study have meaning. They’re not just words or concepts that we think of and they’re not meant to exist in a vacuum.”

West began by referencing social issues such as rampant commodification, neo-fascism and imperialism which have only exacerbated since 1993, the year his book was published.

“When commodification takes over, when everything is for sale, when everyone is for sale, the commandment is to avoid getting caught,” West said.

The focus then shifted to the resultant depression and loss of hope, especially among youth today, which was particularly resonant. West cited pragmatist philosopher John Dewey. Dewey writes, “the willingness to take things in detail rather [than] in sweeping generalities, retail rather than wholesale.” 

“[You’re a participant] in the mire…in the funk…in the impure. Once you’re in it you see the incongruities not just in others, but in yourself.”

West co-opted Dewey’s retail/wholesale dichotomy to elucidate his own views on the subject.

“A culture that doesn’t equip you to be vulnerable enough to know genuine love leads to wholesale depression,” West said. “Wholesale pessimism is harmful, but retail pessimism can be beautiful.”

This statement particularly struck Sofia Centeno PO ’26, who reflected on the importance of community.

“Allowing ourselves that space for vulnerability and recognition of humanity are everyday acts we can do to build hope,” she said. “This talk reminded me to be more intentional with those around me.”

Toole brought up the quote from West’s book, which nicely distills the idea of cultivation of love at the heart of his talk: 

“Nihilism is not overcome by arguments or analyses; it is tamed by love and care,” he writes. “Any disease of the soul must be conquered by a turning of one’s soul. This turning is done through one’s own affirmation of one’s worth –– an affirmation fueled by the concern of others. A love ethic must be at the center of a politics of conversion.”

West shared a few anecdotes which aligned with the “love ethic.”An example he gave was that a simple “how’s your mom doing?” question can transcend the political line. 

Memorably, West called himself a “prisoner of hope.” When asked about the distinction between hope and optimism, he stated that optimism is effectively assuming the role of a spectator, while hope entails being a participant. As he emphasized the revealing nature of hope, his words seemed to spill out in a captivating rhythm.

“[You’re a participant] in the mire … in the funk … in the impure,” West said. “Once you’re in it you see the incongruities not just in others, but in yourself.”

The audience was entranced by West’s resolute cadence.

“The type of excitement and adrenaline that he has the ability to incite [is inspiring] … when Dr. West talks, it’s like a sermon. It literally feels like you’re going to church and being preached to,” Banerjee said.

Interwoven with his assertions were quotes from his favorite books, ideas from the Black church, stories of his loved ones and appreciation for Black icons. By and large, the audience connected with him on an incredibly deep level due to the sense of community he fostered through his quips and personal tidbits.

In a broad sense, his love for us humans, from our art to our very beings, undergirded his every word. His talk resonated with each audience member differently, manifesting in a remarkable camaraderie that arose from the embrace of difference.

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