“Haitian Thinkers in the Public Space: An Interview Series”
“Haiti Then and Now” Interviews Professor Paul C. Mocombe
Conducted by Dr. Celucien L. Joseph
May 15, 2020
HTN: Please tell us about yourself, your background, education, upbringing, connection to Haiti, etc. Who is Dr. Paul C. Mocombe?
PM: I was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and raised by my loving and caring paternal grandparents, Saul and Eugenia Mocombe, until the age of six. At which point, I immigrated to the US, New Jersey, to live with my parents. That move had a negative impact on me. My mother is an under-educated narcissistic psychopath who emotionally, physically, and mentally abused me. My father is/was a brilliant man, but a womanizer driven by greed. This combination created a perverse bourgeois lifestyle, which I have sought to escape my entire life. As the psychoanalyst Anne Freud points out about the mechanisms of defense among abused children, I over-intellectualized my situation, which drove me towards philosophy and sociology amongst a pathology of womanizing and arrogance that I inherited from the perversions of my nuclear family. My grandparents’ teachings, via proverbs, however, helped shield me from the pathological-pathogenic household my parents created. I will not dwell much on the pathologies that drove me least these narcissists seek to take credit for my achievements. I give all credit and praise to my grandparents, whose teachings and love for me gave me the dialectical basis to shun my parents’ pathologies. Nonetheless, I would go on to earn a BA in history and ethnic studies, MA in sociology, and a PhD in philosophy and sociology with concentrations in social theory, globalization, and race and ethnic relations.
HTN: In contemporary Haitian studies, you are one of the most prolific Haitian writers in the English language. By training, you are a philosopher and sociologist; yet you are an interdisciplinary scholar whose research and writings cross disciplinary boundary. In the last eighteen years or so, you published more than twenty academic books in various disciplines and fields of knowledge, including sociology, anthropology, history, philosophy, theoretical physics, education, literacy, religion, history, race relations, critical theory, etc. Some of your academic titles include The Vodou Ethic and the Spirit of Communism: The Practical Consciousness of the African People of Haiti (2016); Mind, Body, and Consciousness in Society (2018); Identity and Ideology in Haiti: The Children of Sans Souci, Dessalines/Toussaint, and Petion (2018); The Theory of Phenomenological Structuralism (2019); Haitian Epistemology (2019); Capitalism, Lakouism, and Libertarian Communism (2020); and Identity and Ideology in the Haitian U.S. Diaspora (2020). You have tested your own theory of “phenomenological structuralism” (If I may, I would like to call it the Mocombeian theory of knowledge or simply Mocombeian idealism) in various areas of study such as philosophy, religion, and sociology (see the book titles above).
As a social theorist, you are very much interested in the application of social theory to contemporary and sensitive issues such as race, class, and capitalism. Would you briefly define the two theoretical concepts in their initial origination or expressions: phenomenology and structuralism? Next, describe “phenomenological structuralism” as a theory of knowledge and an intellectual narrative (a multiplicity) of crisscrossing you’ve cogently articulated through your body of scholarship.
PM: For me, the pursuit of knowledge must be a holistic enterprise. Western academics, since the Enlightenment has sought to compartmentalize that pursuit. This might be a result of the influence of specialization into the academy. Regardless, my academic aim has been to once again, unify the enterprise; hence my attempt to synthesize phenomenology and structuralism in order to give a theory of everything in the field of the Human and Social sciences. In the Human sciences, phenomenology is a method in philosophy that focuses on individual consciousness and the contents of consciousness. It diametrically opposes structuralism, which is an approach that focuses on relations of things, ideas, etc. that are external to individual consciousness. I attempt to synthesize the two to both resolve the structure/agency problematic, regarding human actions, intentions, etc., of the social sciences and to ground my theory of everything as it pertains to the evolution of consciousness and other things of the universe.
HTN: Based on one of your recent publications, The Theory of Phenomenological Structuralism (2019), a text that articulates the constitution of such a theory and in which you engaged some of the major theoretical practices and pragmatic issues in the social sciences and structurationist sociological theory, respectively. Some of your intellectual concerns included (the matters you’ve attempted to resolve through your own theory) human agency, structure, social relations, identity, conceptual categories, consciousness, etc. In this book, you interacted with various Western intellectual philosophers and traditions (the phenomenological schools of Jean Paul Sartre, Martin Heidegger, Edmund Husserl, etc.) as well as with a non-Western intellectual tradition, what you’ve carefully phrased “Haitian metaphysical ontology and epistemology” via the Vodouist cosmology of “Vilokan idealism.” First, would you identify the faults in Western phenomenology—for example, what is the nature of the debate in relation to the notion of “structure” and “agency” in this philosophical tradition? Second, how have European thinkers such as Jürgen Habermas, Anthody Gibbens, Pierre Bourdieu, Marshall Sahlins, etc., through the theory of structuralism and Marxism, have responded to the inherent problems within their own tradition.
PM: The problem with Western theorists is that they think things apart and reify them as though they are actually apart in everyday life. This is why we have a structure/agency problematic. For a long time, Western theorists in the Social and Human sciences attempted to explain human phenomenon and actions as either external (structuralism) to the human being or internal. Structurationist theorists such as Giddens, Habermas, Sahlins, Bourdieu, etc., attempted to resolve the problem by synthesizing the two positions through the concept of, “practical consciousness” and inferred that human action is a result of their internalization of structural ideas, concepts, etc., recursively organized and reproduced as practical activity/consciousness. This response is also problematic because it is a form of structural determinism. My theory of phenomenological structuralism seeks to resolve the latter problematic.
HTN: By engaging the noted European intellectuals through the application of your own theory of “phenomenological structuralism,” how have you resolved these intricate philosophical and pragmatic issues as they pertain not only to the disciplines of philosophy and sociology, but also to the practical matters of labor, class, and race?
PM: In my theory, I resolve the structure/agency problematic via the stance or gaze of human subjects. For me, we (and our actions) are the product of three structures of signification (subatomic particles, physiological drives of the body, structural ideas connected to the mode of production) and our ability to defer meaning in ego-centered communicative discourse. Through the internal interactions of these structures and the conflict (or not) between them, we may develop a third person approach to our own existence that may lead to our questioning of our being and deferring the accepted dominant structure of signification we find ourselves evolving in. This does not mean we all develop this stance. No! Only a few of us do, the majority of us simply reproduces our lives by internalizing and reproducing the dominant structure of signification. Alternative forms of action are found among those who defer meaning in ego-centered communicative discourse from a third person perspective, what Martin Heidegger called the “present-at-hand gaze/analytic.” I apply this theory to understanding identity constitution among blacks in capitalism under American hegemony. I conclude that most blacks do not have an identity-in-differential to their former colonial masters; instead, they are a simulacrum of them.
HTN: Great! I would like you to discuss how “Haitian epistemological transcendental idealism” (your own coinage) has helped you to bridge the gaps between Western idealism and Haitian idealism. Here, we are dealing with two different theories of knowledge and two different constitutions of society. The first is a European-based epistemological system; the second is an African-based epistemological structure. I also want you to explain to our readers where does Haitian idealism and Western idealism meet? What is the intersection between Haitian epistemology and Western epistemology? What are the similarities and differences? Would you not affirm that “Haitian idealism” and “Haitian epistemology” are products of Western modernity? Or are they altogether an alternative modernity grounded on an Afro-Haitian cosmology and a way of being in the world?
PM: All national identities had/have their own epistemologies/sciences that are either truth claims or falsehoods. The West universalized its epistemology as representing the nature of reality as such, hence no need for alternative realities. I too subscribe to the principle of universalism as prescribed by the scientific process. So, for me there is only one truth, which the scientific process can help us ascertain. My attempt at reconstituting a Haitian epistemology is to ascertain the scientific worldview of the Africans of Haiti, and how it deviates from the TRUTH as revealed by science. So, I d o not subscribe to the language of similarities and differences. Instead, for me, there are truths and falsehoods. In my activity, I look to see if there are any truth claims in the transcendental realism of Haitian epistemology that are relevant to the truth claims of the scientific process. I believe that there are, especially in the domain of quantum physics.
HTN: A fascinating aspect of your scholarship pertains to your brilliant and rigorous attempt to bring Haitian Vodou in conversation with theoretical physics (i.e. quantum mechanics). You discussed this complex rapport in your excellent text Haitian Epistemology (2019). First of all, what is/are the problem (s) in contemporary physics, in particular in the sub-area/specialization called “Quantum Mechanics” that theoretical physicists are yet to explain or resolve; nonetheless, you believe that Haitian Vodou metaphysics (Vilokan Idealism, Haitian structural phenomenology) could provide a potential and perhaps a satisfactory solution?
PM: The fundamental problem in quantum physics, which Haitian epistemology can help shed light on is the reconciliation of quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity. The former deals with how things operate at the smallest subatomic levels and the latter with how they operate at the large or atomic levels. The two theories, right now, diametrically oppose one another. As an example, in quantum mechanics, the entanglement of particles, regardless of their distances, violates Einstein’s theory that light is the faster thing in the universe. Einstein called the former, “spooky action at a distance.” For me, if we understand, what Haitian metaphysics tells us about the connections between our world and the world of Vilokan, which is a parallel world, which our world mirrors that can help shed light on the entanglement problem.
HTN: Excellent! Our readers should know that one of the difficult aspects in the Mocombeian theory of phenomenological structuralism is the complex link between philosophical materialism (i.e. dialectical materialism, atheistic Marxism) and the Vodou theistic tradition (i.e. the noumenal Vilkonaic realm, Spirit of communisms, Lakouism). On one hand, you unapologetically affirmed the merit of a Haitian Vodou metaphysics; on the other hand, you categorically denied the possibility to resolve the problems of social sciences and philosophy through a theistic framework—such as the Vodou theistic tradition, for example. How have you been able to reconcile this religious-scientific-philosophical predicament of modernity and postmodernity, correspondingly? Or is it necessary to reconcile them? In other words, is it possible to be a committed Vodou scholar (even a fervent adherent to the Vodou faith) and a purely materialist in the Nietzschean and Marxist sense?
PM: For me, in keeping with the anthropology of James Frazier that religion was the first form of science based upon continuous conjunction and animism; I do not view Vodou as a religion. Instead, I view it as an incomplete science. I have a problem with Haitian academics who attempt to reify Vodou as a religion and continue the practice of superstitious acts without rationally exploring them.
HTN: By the way, it is important to inform our readers that there is such a school of thought in Haitian intellectual tradition in the first and second half of the twentieth-century; for example, such ideas about Vodou, secularism, and Marxism are prominently featured in the writings of Jacques Roumain, René Depestre, Jean-Fernand Brièrre, Jacques Stephen Alexis, Carl Brouard, Antonio Vieux, Franck Étienne (“Frankétienne”), etc. Also, it is good to bring to our readers’ attention that there is a strong Humanist Tradition in Haitian (Saint-Domingue) history, beginning with the “colonial writings” of Jean-Baptiste Chavannes, Vincent Ogé, and Toussaint Louverture and continuing with the postcolonial Haitian literary productions of Jean Louis Vastey (“Baron de Vastey”), Joseph Anténor Firmin, Jean Price-Mars, Annie Desroy, Justin Chrysostome Dorsainvil, Marie Vieux-Chauvet, Madeleine Sylvain-Bouchereau, Philippe Thoby-Marcelin, Nadine Magloire, etc.
HTN: We will do our readers an intellectual disservice shall we fail to discuss another significant work of yours: Identity and Ideology in Haiti: The Children of Sans Souci, Dessalines/Toussaint, and Petion, which you published with Routledge in 2018—a text we believe is relevant to our understanding of contemporary Haitian politics and the pressing issues of race, color, and class in the modern Haitian society and in the world. In this work, you attempted to analyze the founding principles and the French Enlightenment’s democratic ideals (“liberty, equality, and fraternity,” which we borrowed from France and our former colonial masters) of the postcolonial nation-state of Haiti. These democratic ideals had had a substantial influence on the language of our laws, the founding ethical principles of our branches of our government, as well as the rhetorical force of our numerous Constitutions.
Further, in chapters 1: “The Children of Sans Souci, Dessalines/Toussaint, and Pétion and Chapter 6: “The My Nigga Haitian,” you offered a critical analysis on the current state of Haitian politics and civil society. You’ve concluded that that “some things” have gone wrong at the genesis of this country, our native land, which explain the current state of our political, economic, and moral troubles in modern Haitian society. Can you briefly discuss the faults and shortcomings of Haiti’s Founders’ faults in laying the founding principles for the new nation of Haiti?
What can we do as Haitians and friends of Haiti to improve the human condition in Haiti and to contribute to the common good and human flourishing, both in the present and future Haitian society? Also, how can Haitian scholars/Haitianists cement their scholarship with service, as you have done through your multiple efforts and initiatives (i.e. the Mocombe’s Reading Room Series, your literacy project for disadvantaged schools and students in Broward County, Florida, etc.)
PM: The problem with Haiti is that the elites internalized and adopted the humanist worldview of their former colonial masters, which they go about recursively reorganizing and reproducing in their so-called capitalist/democratic Republic for the well-being of all Haitians. I am an antihumanist and do not believe in centering the human being to constitute values by which we ought to reproduce our being in the world. We are not different from any other species on this planet. Reason and rationality do not give us our absurd values to have dominion over the world. That is pure hubris and will bring about our demise if we keep thinking that they do. We must center a naturalistic philosophy that emphasizes the cycle of birth and rebirth within the limits of the planet, not absurd human values based on egoism and destruction. Haitian scholars must fight to will (in the form of criticisms and scholarship) this universal value of nature or perish with the absurd logic of western humanism as encapsulated in theories of democracy and human values.
HTN: Our readers should also know that you are a great “Kompa” fanatic and dancer, as well as a passionate champion of everything Haitian. What are some good Haitian “kompa” songs would you recommend to our readers or any specific Haitian band would you advise us to listen to?
PM: I love Konpa, Zouk, and dancing. My favorite ban or Jaz are Klass (“You don’t want Me” is a classic); the DJ, Ronald BS; Zenglen (“Yon ti Bo” is a beautiful song); and 5lan (I love everything by 5lan).
HTN: Finally, are you currently working on any new book project?
PM: I am currently working on my reader, “The Paul C. Mocombe Reader,” and four textbooks in sociology, philosophy, physics, and psychology.
HTN: Thank you, Dr. Mocombe, for your time. Haiti Then and Now appreciates your scholarship!
*** In the United States, the month of May is called the Haitian Heritage Month. For example, on May 18, we celebrate the Haitian Flag Day. (We want to wish you our readers an early Haitian Flag Day!) As a result, we will share with you two interviews this month: this present interview with Dr. Paul C. Mocombe (May 15) and our second interview with Dr. Marlene Daut, which will be posted on the last day of the month (May 31).