From the Print Journal

Indigenous Vanguards: Education, National Liberation, and the Limits of Modernism by Ben Conisbee Baer

Cover of Indigenous Vanguards: Education, National Liberation, and the Limits of Modernism
Indigenous Vanguards: Education, National Liberation, and the Limits of Modernism. Ben Conisbee Baer. New York: Columbia University Press, 2019. Pp. 384. $75.00 (cloth).

© 2021 Johns Hopkins University Press

Ben Conisbee Baer’s Indigenous Vanguards is about the education of modernist educators. But the book is also itself an education, combining range with rigor to alter our understanding of modernism and its limits. Baer focuses mainly on the interwar period and on primary education as it figures in the work of Alain Locke, Léopold Sédar Senghor, Aimé Césaire, D. H. Lawrence, and Tarashankar Bandyopadhyay, among others. Baer’s readings are riveting, and they will inform research in fields including postcolonial studies, Marxism, critical and political theory, and comparative literature. Indeed, Indigenous Vanguards is remarkable not least in its pointed, proudly comparativist refusal to remain within the boundaries that delimit areas of inquiry. Baer’s book traverses languages and continents, tracing a broad sweep from North America and the Caribbean to Europe, West Africa, and South Asia as it draws attention to the ways in which these regions are already densely interconnected in the histories of transatlantic slavery, capitalism, colonialism, and decolonization as well as in the long history of responses to Enlightenment thought. So, too, are the histories of modernist experimentation and education inextricable from one another, because “modernity’s social landscape is a forcefully pedagogical one” (100). Modern education, in other words, shapes modern social life, and it stands to reason that modernist responses to the latter were also engagements with the former. But of course education shapes social life unevenly, and under conditions of colonialism and racialization—“in a regionalized, contradictory, and fissured field”—students and societies are not only given unequal access to education; they are also educated to different ends (101).

Modernist experiments registered these differences, which antiracist and anticolonial vanguards also sought to redress. Baer argues that these vanguards’ efforts depended on a key affordance of the literary, drawing on literature’s capacity to educate otherwise, in a “productive and fragile critical complicity” with actually existing schools (95). Literature dangerously supplements schooling. And for all its impressive scope and engagement with concrete educational initiatives, Baer’s book remains steadfast in its commitment to the “singular curriculum” assigned by each of the literary texts that it considers (43). This means paying close attention to the educations that these texts stage, index, fantasize, or forestall. It means attending to “the conduct of the text” and not only to its content, in other words, but it also entails attention to the dreams that recur in the text, the desires that animate it, and the conditions that frustrate their realization (143).

In this sense, we could compare Baer’s method to the psychoanalytic way of working “one by one,” of treating one patient at a time. This is not to suggest that Indigenous Vanguards is simply diagnostic. But the book does demonstrate that symptomatic reading—despite its associations with supposedly dated “strong theory”—remains a vibrant and indispensable practice. Baer writes beautifully about “the push and pull of transference, ever unfixing the game of self-consolidation” (320). In this way, he shows how, in some versions of education, as in psychoanalysis, the stultifying injunction to mirror and assimilate can give way to a more mobile dynamic, in which the work of self-constitution becomes at once anticolonial and provisional: “a self-change required of ‘leaders’ as well as ‘led’ that is not simply a reversal of positions,” as Baer writes, glossing Gramsci and recalling Marx, or, as in his characterization of Césaire, a “putting-together of bits of . . . self from cut-outs snipped from materials of the dominant” (35, 145). There is, as those last phrases indicate, a push and pull at work in Baer’s own vigorous prose, which honors the energy and the urgency of the struggles that it describes.

The introduction is a master class that gathers lessons from Kant, Marx, Gramsci, Fanon, Althusser, Spivak, and others, asking how their diverse understandings of education speak to the demands of decolonization. (Baer’s tributes to Fanon will send many readers back to The Wretched of the Earth. And those who have not been rereading Spivak, with whom Baer is in deep and sustained conversation, will find themselves peer pressured, persuaded, and ultimately inspired to do so.) How did anticolonial struggles envision “the day after liberation,” and what role did education play in these visions (15)? What training in democratic citizenship would the subalterns in newly independent states receive, and how if at all did cultural vanguards seek to contribute to this effort? How did modernist aesthetics channel the desires of anticolonial struggles even while these struggles brought modernism, just as they now bring modernist studies, into contact with its limits? Baer shows that movements for national liberation and modernist vanguards shared investments in imaginary “short circuits.” Struggles for independence insisted that the arduous and always—incomplete work of education could be “short-circuited” by an emancipation that would immediately transform subalterns into governing citizens (12). For their part, avant-gardes cultivated a belief in “the artistic short circuit” according to which these groups could “speak directly to, ‘inspire,’ or activate the latent but replete voices of the oppressed,” bypassing mediations and complications, including those of the classroom, on the way to changing the world (31).

Baer seeks to sustain rather than resolve the tensions both within and between these two sets of projects. The dreams of these vanguards are no less instructive, in his view, for being strictly unrealizable, and Baer’s book is at its most instructive when it teaches us to recognize the complications that are addressed—or that surface, if only fleetingly—in vanguard works. So, for instance, in the clearest distillation of the “vanguardist fantasy” discussed in the book, Lawrence’s The Plumed Serpent, analyzed in chapter four, reimagines the Mexican Revolution and its aftermath, devising a “feudalistic identitarian vanguardism” capable of finishing the work left undone by the revolution itself (238). Yet, Baer contends, the novel also gestures toward the impossibility of such wholesale transformation, for unnamed peasant women keep reappearing, leaving a silent trace in the text that “speaks of the subalternity left untouched by the militant fantasy of opening the subaltern voice and unleashing the subaltern soul” (241).

Likewise, a poem by Léon Damas quoted in Senghor’s manifesto “Le problème culturel,” which Baer discusses in chapter two, prompts us “to imagine the billions . . . murderously excluded from grasping the stakes of these modernist poems and manifestoes” (131). And Césaire’s Cahier d’un retour au pays natal, the text at the center of the outstanding chapter three, “folds into itself the very many figures of those for whom neither the Cahier nor a school cahier would mean anything much at all” (188). Finally, Baer argues in chapter five that Tarashankar’s novel The Tale of Hansuli Turn creates a glossary of creole words repeatedly translated into Bengali and defined for the reader, in what becomes an ongoing, narratively obtrusive “drill” (281). Here the teaching comes “from below,” like “the gift of a possible lesson from subaltern space,” and yet since this space remains inaccessible from within “the mainstream public sphere” in which the novel participates, this lesson is one that the text can call for but not deliver (282, 288).

For Baer, such texts can begin to work against “the violent, muting history of mind-closure,” but they cannot bring this history to an end (82). As we learn in chapter one, Locke hints at his awareness of this limitation when he concludes his anthology The New Negro with a text by Du Bois that calls Locke’s own vanguardist premises into question. Du Bois’s essay prefigures “the end of the world” in Césaire’s sense and Fanon’s—the end, that is, of Eurocentrism and empire—while casting doubt on “the self-assurance of the vanguard march insofar as it is compatible with capitalist development” (90). Here again, then, a vanguardist text “puts us onto the trail of what diverts or withdraws from” vanguardism (89).

To follow this trail is also, in Baer’s view, to begin to take distance from the still-prevailing practice of modernist studies, including studies of global or alternative modernisms: “In spite of diversities of place and multicentric appearances, it is largely continuities of class-specific perception and structures of feeling that are universalized in the scramble for global examples” (44). If modernist studies remains guided by modernism’s own drive “to bring ever more margins into the sphere of representability,” then Indigenous Vanguards asks how we might redirect this impulse, in an effort to alter the sphere of representability itself (127). This effort might begin, Baer suggests, with scenes of teaching that are sites of potential discontinuity and that complicate our “class-specific perception” (44).

In light of current, clamorous appeals to impoverished understandings of citizenship, some readers might wonder about the emphasis placed on citizenship throughout Baer’s book, whose engagement with vanguardism is also untimely. (As I write, in June 2020, it is Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction, rather than his writings on the vanguard “talented tenth,” that many people are rereading, with good reason.) Baer takes pains to note, however, that Indigenous Vanguards is about “a period during which democracy not only was a watchword for the lifting of colonial domination, but also named a turn toward an incalculable future” (13). By this account, the democratic citizen is precisely not a figure for the “semblable,” as in today’s ethnonationalisms (116). The task of education will remain crucial to any collective struggle to bring about a democracy worthy of the name. This is clearer than ever at a moment when the notion of deschooling has, in Baer’s words, “become a kind of nightmare reality” (299). At such a moment, the lucid, decolonizing dreams that Baer richly documents and compellingly analyzes should startle us awake and set us to work.