Robert Coleman-Senghor (1940-2011)

22Apr11

After being away for six years, I’ve finally returned to Sonoma County for an extended stay.  A large part of the excitement I had about returning had to do with being able to experience a sense of the physical place again, though an even larger part had to do with the fact that I would be able to reconnect with so many people that I haven’t been able to see in years, people who are and have been the prime part of what it means for me — in a very real sense — to have come from here in the first place, the fundamental roots and branches of it all.  It was, then, devastating news to find out that Bob Coleman-Senghor had died suddenly on April 9th from a torn aorta.  I had been settling in just five or six miles away, starting to get comfortable with the rhythms of the place again, and suddenly the topography is unrecognizable.

Bob was my mentor when I was at Sonoma State University and one of the single most influential people in terms of my intellectual, emotional, and political development; that is to say, one of the single most influential people in my life.  He introduced me to so many important concepts and theorists that it’s hard to know where to begin: Lyotard and metalanguage, Lévi-Strauss and bricolage, Baudrillard and simulacra, the structuralism inherent in de Saussure’s theory of language, Wolfgang Iser’s phenomenology of reading, Derrida’s aporia, a host of critical approaches to gender and race theory (I especially remember reading the amazingly brilliant Hortense Spillers, as well as Franz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks), Foucault’s notion of counter-memory,  and, perhaps most important for my own approach to literary analysis, the Marxist cultural criticism of Jameson, Eagleton, and Williams.

This is a list of readings, a list of influences, but this doesn’t come close to expressing the effect that Bob had as a teacher.  He made learning exciting and important by emphasizing the crucial role that intellectual endeavor can have in the development of social, political, and aesthetic analysis — in the development of consciousness itself.  He was one of the first people I ever knew who unequivocally put his trust in the ability and intellect of his students and allowed students to engage with material that many would only consider appropriate only for a graduate seminar.  He encouraged rigorous and dedicated reading at every level, especially when it came to paying close attention to the way that language itself functions to instantiate and naturalize the cultural assumptions that surround us at every turn.  Two sayings that I think are especially relevant to Bob’s approach to literary analysis might be, on the one hand, Wittgenstein’s statement that “‘To imagine a language is to imagine a form of life,” and, on the other, Paul de Man’s claim that “The resistance to theory is a resistance to the use of language about language.  It is therefore a resistance to language itself or to the possibility that language contains factors or functions that cannot be reduced to intuition.”

Bob was absolutely committed to his students and did more than just about anyone I can think of in terms of promoting his students and getting them placed in high-level graduate programs.  In my case, I’m sure that Bob’s incredibly generous five-page long letter of recommendation to UC Berkeley had more to do with my being admitted than any of the written material that I provided myself.  At the end of each semester Bob would hold a party at his house for his seminar students, and he was famous for challenging students to cook-offs, which he almost invariably won (he made an amazing barbecue sauce that contained fresh honey and kumquats).  I’m sure he was just about the only professor at SSU who ever played Anthony Braxton records as party music.

Since I’ve returned to Sonoma County I’ve been reading Border Country by Raymond Williams, a semi-autobiographical novel about a first-generation academic who returns to the Welsh countryside he grew up in to help care for his father, who has suffered a stroke.  In one scene Will, the main character, is talking with the local vicar, who tells him that “a life lasts longer than the actual body through which it moves.”  In a similar vein, an article in the latest London Review of Books has this to say about John Stuart Mill’s secular take on the significance of death:

But if individual life is short, Mill writes, the life of the species is not, and we can cultivate what he calls ‘the Religion of Humanity’, a state in which people feel their lives ‘prolonged in their younger contemporaries and in all who help to carry on the progressive movement of human affairs’.  Such people would ‘live ideally in the life of those who are to follow them’.

I’ll miss Bob greatly, and he’ll always be with me.

You can read the Press Democrat’s obituary here.

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2 Responses to “Robert Coleman-Senghor (1940-2011)”

  1. 1 Glen DeVore Jr.

    Trane,

    Sympathies from here in Minnesota for the loss of one so loved by you.

    Glen

  2. 2 karen hess

    Trane, I’m so sorry to hear about your loss. And happy about your gain (baby Isabella) A book I loved about sense of place, and loss, is “Refuge” by Terry Tempest Williams. Also Rebecca Solnit just released a San Francisco Almanac which is really great to read. Hope to catch you in person somewhere before you head off to the East! K


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