Jared Sexton - African American Studies - University of California, Irvine

In his article, "Theory in Black," Lewis Gordon writes the following:

  • Theory in phobogenic designation. It occasions anxiety of thought; it is theory in jeopardy. [...] There is a form of illicit the very beginnings of seeing black, which makes a designation of seeing in black, theorizing, that is, in black, more than oxymoronic. It has the mythopoetics of sin. [...] Blackness, in all its metaphors and historical submergence, reaches out to theory, then, as theory split from itself. It is the dark side of theory, which, in the end, is none other than theory itself, understood as self-reflective, outside itself (Gordon 2010: 196-8).

I am guided in the following task by a two-sided idea derived from Gordon's arguments: 1) all thought, insofar as it is genuine thinking, might best be conceived of as black thought and, consequently, 2) all researches, insofar as they are genuinely critical inquiries, aspire to black studies. Blackness is theory itself, anti-blackness the resistance to theory. I suspect that this premise might help us to re-frame questions of theory in cultural studies by referring to – or forging – another criterion of evaluation. The pedagogical thrust of this comment emerges from recurrent questions arising from my undergraduate teaching in the Program in African American Studies and my graduate teaching in the Culture and Theory Ph.D. Program and the Critical Theory Emphasis at the University of California, Irvine, and from research conducted for a recent Social Text article entitled, "People-of-Color-Blindness: Notes on the Afterlife of Slavery" (2010). The questions, though they have been around for some time now, remain relatively young in the historic instance: Are there multiple forms or species of racism or simply variations of a fundamental structure? If it is the latter, what provides the model or matrix (colonialism, slavery, anti-Semitism)? Or is racism, rather, a singular history of violent conjunctures? [2] Can anti-racist politics be approached in ways that denaturalize the color line, retain the specificities of discrepant histories of racialization, and think through their relational formation? "People-of-Color-Blindness" serves as an initial response to such questions and a sort of extended preface to my comments below. There I attempted to examine the re-figuration of slavery and its afterlife [3] within the field of black studies, paying special attention to the theoretical status of the concept of "social death" since its introduction by Orlando Patterson in his synthetic 1982 study, Slavery and Social Death (Harvard UP). For Patterson, the social death of slavery is comprised of three basic elements: 1) total powerlessness, 2) natal alienation or "the loss of ties of birth in both ascending and descending generations" (Patterson 1982: 7), and 3) generalized dishonor, this last element being a direct effect of the previous two. Adjudicating the explanatory power of Patterson's magnum opus, then, bears on matters of political and social theory (i.e., power), law (i.e., right) and philosophy (i.e., ontology, epistemology and ethics) as much as history and historiography (i.e., the archive and the question of writing). So, aside from acknowledging the veritable explosion in social, cultural, economic and geographic histories of slavery in the last twenty years, [4] the latter and more specific focus of this comment involves an exploration of the emergent tension between the formulations of "afro-pessimism" and "black optimism" offered respectively in Frank B. Wilderson's 2010 Red, White and Black: Cinema and the Structure of U.S. Antagonisms (Duke UP) and Fred Moten's recent series of articles in the journals Criticism ("The Case of Blackness" 50:2 [2009]), PMLA ("Black Ops" 123:5 [2008]), and CR: The New Centennial Review ("Knowledge of Freedom" 4:2 [2005]). The wager here is that the details of what might seem at first to be a highly technical dispute in a small corner of the American academy will reveal themselves to be illuminating comments on the guiding assumptions and operative terms of the field of black studies particularly and the range of cultural studies more generally, both in and beyond the United States.

For Wilderson, afro-pessimism takes seriously the longue durée of social death in Atlantic history and thereby pursues an investigation of "the meaning of Blackness not – in the first instance – as a variously and unconsciously interpellated identity or as a conscious social actor [animated by legible political interests], but as a structural position of non-communicability in the face of all other positions" (Wilderson 2010: 58, emphasis added). Wilderson's procedure here is something like the abstraction of a conceptual framework (regarding structural positionality), a methodology (regarding paradigmatic analysis) and a structure of feeling (regarding the politics of antagonism) that, taken together, remain implicit in the work of various luminaries of black studies but whose full implications only become available when they are rendered explicit and raised to another level of theorization. [5] Moten, in his turn, forwards a notion of black optimism drawn from his longstanding meditation on the relation between black politics and black musical performance and this notion is meant, in part, to counter or reposition the premises of afro-pessimism by holding the force of black agency to be logically and ontologically prior to the construction of a social order characterized by anti-blackness – "the resistance that constitutes constraint," as he phrases it elsewhere. [6] I think it important that the shifting line of distinction progressively marked out between the theoretical tendencies I have just sketched turns in crucial ways on their real or imagined ability to think about what Wilderson calls "the political ontology of race" not only alongside and through a history of capitalism and the emergence of the modern nation-state, [7] but also with respect to formations of gender and sexuality as mutually constituting categories of differentiation. [8] We are dealing here with both the challenges of analytical description and the desire for political prescription.

The productive friction at the heart of this endeavor, generating equal parts heat and light, was already evident throughout the two-day symposium I organized in 2006 at the University of California, Irvine. That gathering, entitled "Black Thought in the Age of Terror," brought together some of the most prominent voices in black studies to comment on a range of issues that each understood to be of significance for the field in the early twenty-first century. [9] In that venue, it became clear that any claim about the contemporary persistence of black social death for an analysis of the afterlife of slavery would have to contend with the insistence of black social life, and vice versa. Put somewhat differently, something more complicated was afoot than the oft-noted dialectic of slavery and freedom, or power and resistance, something like an intimacy of the two terms that arrayed them less as opposites and more as conditions of an impossible possibility.

In fact, this theoretical problematic reaches back quite a bit further, at least to Moten's critical engagement with Saidiya Hartman's landmark text, Scenes of Subjection (Oxford UP, 1997), first in his 1999 book review for the journal TDR: The Drama Review and then again in 2003 in the opening pages of his first major work, In the Break (Duke UP). Since then, this critical engagement has been extended further by Daphne Brooks' Bodies in Dissent (Duke UP, 2006) and by Jayna Brown’s Babylon Girls (Duke UP, 2008), for instance, but one might understand this massive and often convoluted exchange as bound up in an even more profound contest over the proper reading of the entire oeuvre of Hortense Spillers, the leading theoretical figure in the field of critical black studies over the last thirty years. That is also to say that it is a question of the most basic political and intellectual orientation of black feminism, the ground wire of black studies as such, in the post-civil rights era and beyond. The upshot of this meditation lies in the collective opportunity to revisit and revise Giorgio Agamben's grand urging in his Means without Ends (Univ. of Minnesota Press, 2000) to "abandon decidedly, without reservation, the fundamental concepts through which we have so far represented the subjects of the political" in order to "build our political philosophy anew" (16). It is hoped that in our pursuit of this renewal of categories of thought in and through the history of racial slavery, we might better apprehend the prospects for a future of freedom and justice to come.

In "The Case of Blackness," Moten is concerned with a strife internal to the field formation of black studies, internal, moreover, to the black (radical) tradition [10] that black studies is or seeks out as institutional inscription, a "strife between normativity and the deconstruction of norms" that he argues, persuasively, "is essential not only to contemporary black academic discourse but also to the discourses of the barbershop, the beauty shop, and the bookstore" (Moten 2008: 178). Put slightly differently, there is a strife within the black (radical) tradition between "radicalism (here understood as the performance of a general critique of the proper)" and a "normative striving against the grain of the very radicalism from which the desire for norms is derived" (Moten 2008: 177). [11] If radicalism gives rise to the desire for norms, like a river from source water or a tree from roots, if the general critique of the proper gives rise to the desire for propriety (in the fullest sense of the term) and not vice versa, then our prevailing notion of critique – and the forms and sources of our critical activity – is put profoundly into question, and, I think, rightly so. It would mean, at the very least, that we could not, as Nahum Chandler ably demonstrates, analytically presuppose "the system in which the subordination takes place," in this case the system of racial slavery, and then insert the subjects or objects of that system "into this pre-established matrix to engage in their functional articulation of the permutations prescribed therein" (Chandler 2000: 261). Instead, we would have to account for "the constitution of general system or structure" and not just its operational dynamics (ibid, emphasis added). [12] Moten finds examples of this prevailing notion of critique in a certain moment of Fanon and, consequently, in a citation and elaboration or resonance of Fanon in a 2003 article, "Raw Life," that I co-authored with Huey Copeland for the journal Qui Parle (Sexton & Copeland 2003). There are other references in Moten's piece, less perceptible, to an interview with Saidiya Hartman conducted by Frank B. Wilderson, III for the same issue under the title, "The Position of the Unthought" (Hartman 2003). There are references, by extension, to Hartman's Scenes of Subjection (1997) and Lose Your Mother (2007) and to Wilderson's Red, White and Black (2008), as well as to some of the sources that the latter draws upon in his own formulation: Kara Keeling's The Witch's Flight (2007), David Marriott's On Black Men (2000), Achille Mbembe's On the Postcolony (2001). All of these works are addressed to the extent that they are said to share "an epistemological consensus broad enough to include Fanon, on the one hand, and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, on the other – encompassing formulations that might be said not only to characterize but also to initiate and continually re-initialize the philosophy of the human sciences." (Moten 2008: 188). [13] That's curious company, of course, but that's precisely the point.

In the same vein, and based on a reading "raw life" as a synonym rather than an opening toward another frame of reference, Moten rails against what he sees in "a certain American reception of Agamben" as a "critical obsession with bare life" that "fetishizes the bareness of it all" (Moten 2008: 216 fn. 6). [14] What is unattended or forgotten in this "constant repetition of bare life," which is how Moten reads this troubled and troubling reading of Fanon avec Agamben, is an engagement with Agamben's (affirmative) notion of "form of life." And here one is unfaithful to the best of Agamben if one's theorization "separates life from the form of life," just as one is unfaithful to the best of Foucault if one overlooks his "constant and unconcealed assumptions of life's fugitivity" in support of a mistaken conviction that misattributes to the great French historian and political philosopher a thesis about the absoluteness of power (ibid). What links these two observations – a strife internal to black studies and a failure in the understanding of power – is a relation of mutual implication. A central point of "The Case of Blackness" obtains in a caution against and a correction of the tendency to depart from the faulty premise of black pathology and thereby carry along the discourse being criticized within the assumptions of the critique. If one misunderstands the nature of power in this way, then one will more than likely assume or, at least, agree to the pathology of blackness and vice versa. Chandler might identify this entanglement less with a problem of attitude and more with an error of judgment. Wilderson's concurrence with the spirit of this gambit would, in turn, warn against the tendency to "fortify and extend the interlocutory life of widely accepted political common sense" and its theoretical underpinnings (Wilderson 2008: 36).

However, before we adjudicate whether the authors of "Raw Life" or the dossier of articles that it introduces or, for that matter, Fanon himself truly suffer from "an explicatory velocity that threatens to abolish the distance between, which is also to say the nearness of" a whole range of conceptual pairs requiring a finer attunement to "their difference and its modalities" (Moten 2008: 182); I think it paramount to adjudicate whether the fact that "blackness has been associated with a certain sense of decay" is, in the first instance, something that we ought to strain against as it strains against us. And even if, in the last instance, we decide to stay the course, need we mobilize a philosophy of life in order to do so? To interrogate "the racial discourses of life philosophy" is to demonstrate that the question of life cannot be pried apart from that thorniest of problems: "the problem of the Negro as a problem for thought," that dubious and doubtless "fact of blackness," or what I will call, in yet another register, the social life of social death. [15] This is as much an inquiry about the nature of nature as it is about the politics of nature and the nature of politics; in other words, it is meta-political no less than it is meta-physical. The question that remains is whether a politics that affirms (social) life can avoid the thanatological dead end if it does not will its own (social) death. David Marriott might call this, with Fanon, "the need to affirm affirmation through negation...not as a moral imperative...but as a psychopolitical necessity" (Marriott 2007: 273 fn. 9). [16]

As noted, Patterson first developed the concept in question for an academic audience in his encyclopedic 1982 survey, Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study, and surprisingly little elaboration followed in the wake of his intellectual contribution and the minor controversy it spurred. That debate, played out in the pages of book reviews and, sometime thereafter, in passing references to the earlier work in scholarly articles and books, generally invoked a caricature of the concept as already debunked. Not that there isn't much in Patterson to worry about, especially if one were interested to examine how aspects of the neoliberalism he would eventually come to embrace are embedded in prototypical form in his magnum opus and in earlier writings from before the commencement of the Reagan/Bush era proper. Consider, on this score, comments by V.P. Franklin (at this writing President’s Chair and Distinguished Professor of History and Education at the University of California, Riverside) in his review for the Journal of Negro History:

  • The large gap in our knowledge of global slavery "from the perspective of the dominated" still needs to be filled. Orlando Patterson's Slavery and Social Death provides us with a great deal of information on the legal status of slaves and freedpeople from ancient times to the present, but his lack of knowledge of ancient and modern languages and his dependence upon secondary sources limits the value of the work for researchers who have moved beyond "the World the Slaveholders Made" to an analysis of what it was like "To Be A Slave." And his inadequate and outdated discussion of slave life and culture in this country makes the work of questionable value to historians and social scientists interested in the Afro-American experience in the United States (Franklin 1983: 215-6).

The negative estimation is two-fold: on the one hand, Patterson is unable and uninterested in writing history from the perspective of the dominated (which is a way of saying that he is unable and uninterested in writing history for the dominated); on the other, Patterson nonetheless takes the liberty of speaking about the dominated and the result is travesty. Franklin draws up a review article Patterson penned for the pages of The New Republic, while at work on the study that would become Slavery and Social Death, in order to establish in Patterson an acute condescension toward the career of the African American in the United States that may suggest something about the conceptual framework more generally. In registering profound disagreement with one of the principal arguments of Eugene Genovese's Bancroft Award-winning 1974 study, Roll, Jordan, Roll, Patterson denounces the "Afro-American cultural system" as a "limited creed – indulgently pedestrian and immediate in its concerns, lacking in prophetic idealism, a total betrayal of the profound eschatology and heroic ideals of their African ancestors" (quoted in ibid: 215). Patterson goes on: "It was not a heritage to be passed on. Like their moral compromises, this was a social adaptation with no potential for change, a total adjustment to the demands of plantation life and the authoritarian dictates of the masters" (ibid). And the fatal blow: "A people, to deserve the respect of their descendents, must do more than merely survive spiritually and physically. There is no intrinsic value in survival, no virtue in the reflexes of the cornered rat" (ibid). Though I've been called worse, one can understand with little effort why an eminent scholar writing in the Journal of Negro History (Franklin, incidentally, is now Editor of the renamed Journal of African American History) might chafe against the suggestion that the masthead of said academic venue contained an oxymoron. We will call Patterson's verdict here an instance of the universal tendency to debasement in the sphere of analysis, insofar as that analysis posits the presupposition of its object. One might think, with Franklin, that a shift in perspective from slaveholder to slave slips the knot of the hermeneutic circle. But the question of the constitution of the system (or whole), Chandler reminds us above, is also the question of the constitution of those subjects or objects (or parts) whose functional distribution plots the operations of the system.

Whereas Patterson's detractors take to task his historical sociology for its inability and unwillingness to fully countenance the agency of the perspective and self-predicating activity of the slave, his supporters (or those engaging his work through generous critique) do not fail to remark, even if they rarely highlight, that what is most stunning is the fact that the concept of social death cannot be generalized. It is indexed to slavery and it does not travel. That is, there are problems in the formulation of the relation of power from which slavery arises and there are problems in the formulation of the relation of this relation of power to other relations of power. This split reading was evident immediately, as indicated in a contemporaneous review by Ross K. Baker. Baker observes, against the neoconservative backlash politics of "angry white males" and the ascendance of another racialized immigration discourse alternating, post-civil rights, between model minority and barbarians at the gate: "The mere fact of slavery makes black Americans different. No amount of tortured logic could permit the analogy to be drawn between a former slave population and an immigrant population, no matter how low-flung the latter group. Indeed, had the Great Society programs persisted at their highest levels until today, it is doubtful that the mass of American blacks would be measurably better off than they are now" (Baker 1983: 21). Baker's refusal of analogy in the wake of his reading of Patterson is pegged to a certain realization "brought home," as he puts it, "by the daunting force of Patterson's description of the bleak totality of the slave experience" (ibid). I want to hold onto this perhaps unwitting distinction that Baker draws between the mere fact of slavery, on the one hand, and the daunting force of description of the slave experience, on the other. In this distinction, Baker echoes both the problem identified by Moten in his reading of my co-authored piece as a certain conflation of the fact of blackness with the lived experience of the black (Moten 2008: 179) and the problem identified by Hartman as a certain conflation of witness and spectator before the scenes of subjection at the heart of slavery (Hartman 1997: 4). I concede that Moten's delineation is precise (though its pertinence is in doubt) and that it encourages a more sophisticated theoretical practice, but Hartman's conclusion, it seems to me, is also accurate in a sort of non-contradictory coincidence or overlap with Moten that situates black studies in a relation field that is still generally under-theorized. Rather than approaching (the theorization of) social death and (the theorization of) social life as an "either/or" proposition, then, why not attempt to think them as a matter of "both/and"? Why not articulate them through the supplementary logic of the copula? In fact, there might be a more radical rethinking available yet.

In recent years, social death has emerged from a period of latency as a notion useful for the critical theory of racial slavery as a matrix of social, political, and economic relations surviving the era of abolition in the nineteenth century, "a racial calculus and a political arithmetic that were entrenched centuries ago." This "afterlife of slavery," as Saidiya Hartman terms it, challenges practitioners in the field to question the prevailing understanding of a post-emancipation society and to revisit the most basic questions about the structural conditions of anti-blackness in the modern world. To ask what it means to speak of "the tragic continuity between slavery and freedom" or "the incomplete nature of emancipation", indeed to speak of about a type of living on that survives after a type of death. For Wilderson, the principal implication of slavery's afterlife is to warrant an intellectual disposition of "afro-pessimism," a qualification and a complication of the assumptive logic of black cultural studies in general and black performance studies in particular, a disposition that posits a political ontology dividing the Slave from the world of the Human in a constitutive way. This critical move has been misconstrued as a negation of the agency of black performance, or even a denial of black social life, and a number of scholars have reasserted the earlier assumptive logic in a gesture that hypostatisizes afro-pessimism to that end. [17]

What I find most intriguing about the timbre of the argument of "The Case of Blackness" and the black optimism it articulates against a certain construal of afro-pessimism is the way that it works away from a discourse of black pathology only to swerve right back into it as an ascription to those found to be taking up and holding themselves in "the stance of the pathologist" in relation to black folks. [18] I say this not only because there is, in this version of events, a recourse to psychoanalytic terminology ("fetishization," "obsession," "repetition,"), but also because there is at the heart of the matter a rhetorical question that establishes both the bad advice of a wild analysis and a tacit diagnosis affording a certain speaker's benefit: "So why is it repressed?" The "it" that has been afflicted by the psychopathology of obsessional neurosis is the understanding, which is also to say the celebration, of the ontological priority or previousness of blackness relative to the anti-blackness that establishes itself against it, a priority or previousness that is also termed "knowledge of freedom" or, pace Chandler, comprehension of "the constitutive force of the African American subject(s)" (Chandler 2000: 261).

What does not occur here is a consideration of the possibility that something might be unfolding in the project or projections of afro-pessimism "knowing full well the danger of a kind of negative reification" associated with its analytical claims to the paradigmatic (Moten 2004: 279). That is to say, it might just be the case that an object lesson in the phenomenology of the thing is a gratuity that folds a new encounter into older habits of thought through a re-inscription of (black) pathology that reassigns its cause and relocates its source without ever really getting inside it. [19] In a way, what we're talking about relates not to a disagreement about "unthought positions" (and their de-formation) but to a disagreement, or discrepancy, about "unthought dispositions" (and their in-formation). I would maintain this insofar as the misrecognition at work in the reading of that motley crew listed in the ninth footnote regards, perhaps ironically, the performative dimension or signifying aspect of a "generalized impropriety" so improper as to appear as the same old propriety returning through the back door. [20] Without sufficient consideration of the gap between statement and enunciation here, to say nothing of quaint notions like context or audience or historical conjuncture, the discourse of afro-pessimism, even as it approaches otherwise important questions, can only seem like a "tragically neurotic" instance of "certain discourse on the relation between blackness and death" (Moten 2007: 9). [21]

Fanon and his interlocutors, or what appear rather as his fateful adherents, would seem to have a problem embracing black social life because they never really come to believe in it, because they cannot acknowledge the social life from which they speak and of which they speak – as negation and impossibility – as their own (Moten 2008: 192). Another way of putting this might be to say that they are caught in a performative contradiction enabled by disavowal. I wonder, however, whether things are even this clear in Fanon and the readings his writing might facilitate. Lewis Gordon's sustained engagement with Fanon finds him situated in an ethical stance grounded in the affirmation of blackness in the historic anti-black world. In a response to the discourse of multiracialism emergent in the late twentieth-century United States, for instance, Gordon writes, following Fanon, that "there is no way to reject the thesis that there is something wrong with being black beyond the willingness to 'be' black – not in terms of convenient fads of playing blackness, but in paying the costs of anti-blackness on a global scale. Against the raceless credo, then, racism cannot be rejected without a dialectic in which humanity experiences a blackened world" (Gordon 1997: 67). What is this willingness to 'be' black, of choosing to be black affirmatively rather than reluctantly, that Gordon finds as the key ethical moment in Fanon?

Elsewhere, in a discussion of W. E. B. Du Bois on the study of black folk, Gordon restates an existential phenomenological conception of the anti-black world developed across his first several books: "Blacks here suffer the phobogenic reality posed by the spirit of racial seriousness. In effect, they more than symbolize or signify various social pathologies – they become them. In our anti-black world, blacks are pathology" (Gordon 2000: 87). This conception would seem to support to Moten's contention that even much radical black studies scholarship sustains the association of blackness with a certain sense of decay and thereby fortifies and extends the interlocutory life of widely accepted political common sense. In fact, it would seem that Gordon deepens the already problematic association to the level of identity. And yet, this is precisely what Gordon argues is the value and insight of Fanon: he fully accepts the definition of himself as pathological as it is imposed by a world that knows itself through that imposition, rather than remaining in a reactive stance that insists on the heterogeneity between a self and an imago originating in culture. Though it may appear counter-intuitive, or rather because it is counter-intuitive, this acceptance or affirmation is active; it is a willing or willingness, in other words, to pay whatever social costs accrue to being black, to inhabiting blackness, to living a black social life under the shadow of social death. This is not an accommodation to the dictates of the anti-black world. The affirmation of blackness, which is to say an affirmation of pathological being, is a refusal to distance oneself from blackness in a valorization of minor differences that bring one closer to health, life, or sociality. Fanon writes in the first chapter of Black Skin, White Masks: "A Senegalese who learns Creole to pass for Antillean is a case of alienation. The Antilleans who make a mockery out of him are lacking in judgment" (Fanon 2008: 21). In a world structured by the twin axioms of white superiority and black inferiority, of white existence and black non-existence, a world structured by a negative categorical imperative – "above all, don’t be black" (Gordon 1997: 63) – in this world, the zero degree of transformation is the turn toward blackness, a turn toward the shame, as it were, that "resides in the idea that 'I am thought of as less than human'" (Nyong'o 2002: 389). [22] In this we might create a transvaluation of pathology itself, something like an embrace of pathology without pathos. To speak of black social life and black social death, black social life against black social death, black social life as black social death, black social life in black social death – all of this is to find oneself in the midst of an argument that is also a profound agreement, an agreement that takes shape in (between) meconnaissance and (dis)belief. Black optimism is not the negation of the negation that is afro-pessimism, just as black social life does not negate black social death by vitalizing it.

A living death is a much a death as it is a living. Nothing in afro-pessimism suggests that there is no black (social) life, only that black life is not social life in the universe formed by the codes of state and civil society, of citizen and subject, of nation and culture, of people and place, of history and heritage, of all the things that colonial society has in common with the colonized, of all that capital has in common with labor – the modern world system. [23] Black life is not lived in the world that the world lives in, but it is lived underground, in outer space. This is agreed. That is to say, what Moten asserts against afro-pessimism is a point already affirmed by afro-pessimism, is, in fact, one of the most polemical dimensions of afro-pessimism as a project: namely, that black life is not social, or rather that black life is lived in social death. Double emphasis, on lived and on death. That's the whole point of the enterprise at some level. It is all about the implications of this agreed upon point where arguments (should) begin, but they cannot (yet) proceed.

Wilderson's is an analysis of the law in its operation as "police power and racial prerogative both under and after slavery" (Wagner 2009: 243). So too is Moten's analysis, at least that just-less-than-half of the intellectual labor committed to the object of black studies as critique of (the anti-blackness of) Western civilization. But Moten is just that much more interested in how black social life steals away or escapes from the law, how it frustrates the police power and, in so doing, calls that very policing into being in the first place. The policing of black freedom, then, is aimed less at its dreaded prospect, apocalyptic rhetoric notwithstanding, than at its irreducible precedence. The logical and ontological priority of the unorthodox self-predicating activity of blackness, the "improvisatory exteriority" or "improvisational immanence" that blackness is, renders the law dependent upon what it polices. This is not the noble agency of resistance. It is a reticence or reluctance that we might not know if it were not pushing back, so long as we know that this pushing back is really a pushing forward. So, in this perverse sense, black social death is black social life. The object of black studies is the aim of black studies. The most radical negation of the anti-black world is the most radical affirmation of a blackened world. Afro-pessimism is "not but nothing other than" black optimism. [24]

Works Cited:

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Baker, Ross K. (1983) "Review of Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study." Worldview Magazine 26(4): 20-1.

Balibar, Etienne (1991) "Racism and Nationalism." Etienne Balibar & Immanuel Wallerstein, Race, Nation, Class: Ambiguous Identities. New York: Verso: 37-68.

Blackburn, Robin (1997) The Making of New World Slavery: From the Baroque to the Modern, 1492-1800. New York: Verso.

Brooks, Daphne (2006) Bodies in Dissent: Spectacular Performances of Race and Freedom, 1850-1910. Durham: Duke UP.

Brown, Jayna (2008) Babylon Girls: Black Women Performers and the Shaping of the Modern. Durham: Duke UP.

Chandler, Nahum (1996) "The Economy of Desedimentation: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Discourses of the Negro." Callaloo 19(1): 78-93.

———. (2000) "Originary Displacement." boundary 2 27(3): 249-286.

———. (2008) "Of Exorbitance: The Problem of the Negro as a Problem for Thought." Criticism 50(3): 345-410.

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Franklin, V. P. (1983) "Reviewed Work(s): Slavery and Social Death by Orlando Patterson." Journal of Negro History 68(2): 212-16.

Gordon, Lewis (2000) Existentia Africana: Understanding Africana Existential Thought. New York: Routledge.

———. (2010) "Theory in Black: Teleological Suspensions in Philosophy of Culture," Qui Parle 18(2): 193-214.

Hartman, Saidiya (1997) Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America. New York: Oxford UP.

———. (2007) Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route. New York: Macmillan.

Hartman, Saidiya & Frank B. Wilderson, III (2003) "The Position of the Unthought." Qui Parle 13(2): 183-201.

Hurst, Andrea (2008) Derrida Vis-à-vis Lacan: Interweaving Deconstruction and Psychoanalysis. New York: Fordham UP.

Johnson, E. Patrick (2003) Appropriating Blackness: Performance and the Politics of Authenticity. Durham: Duke UP.

Jones, Donna V. (2010) The Racial Discourses of Life Philosophy: Vitalism, Négritude, and Modernity. New York: Columbia UP.

Judy, Ronald (1996) "Fanon's Body of Black Experience." Lewis R. Gordon, T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting & Renée T. White (eds.) Fanon: A Critical Reader. New York: Wiley-Blackwell: 53-73.

Keeling, Kara (2007) The Witch's Flight: The Cinematic, the Black Femme, and the Image of Common Sense. Durham: Duke UP.

Lemke, Thomas (2011) Biopolitics: An Advanced Introduction. New York: NYU Press.

Lewis, Michael (2008) Derrida and Lacan: Another Writing. Edinburgh UK: Edinburgh UP.

Marriott, David (2000) On Black Men. New York: Columbia UP.

———. (2011) "Whither Fanon?" Textual Practices 25(1): 33-69.

Mbembe, Achille (2001) On the Postcolony. Berkeley: University of California Press.

———. (2003) "Necropolitics." Trans. Libby Meintjes. Public Culture 15(1): 11-40.

Moten, Fred (1994) "Music Against the Law of Reading the Future and Rodney King." Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association 27(1): 51-64.

———. (2003) In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

———. (2004) "Knowledge of Freedom." CR: The New Centennial Review 4(2): 269-310.

———. (2007) "Black Optimism/Black Operation." Unpublished paper on file with the author.

———. (2008a) "The Case of Blackness." Criticism 50(2): 177-218.

———. (2008b) "Black Op." PMLA 123(5): 1743-7.

Muller, John & William Richardson (eds.) (1988) The Purloined Poe: Lacan, Derrida and Psychoanalytic Reading. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP.

Munoz, Jose (1999) Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Nyong'o, Tavia (2002) "Racist Kitsch and Black Performance." Yale Journal of Criticism 15(2): 371-91.

Robinson, Cedric (2000) Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition. Durham: University of North Carolina Press.

Sexton, Jared (2009) "The Ruse of Engagement: Black Masculinity and the Cinema of Policing." American Quarterly 61(1): 39-63.

———. (2010a) "People-of-Color-Blindess: Notes on the Afterlife of Slavery." Social Text 28 (2): 31-56.

———. (2010b) "African American Studies." John Carlos Rowe (ed.) A Concise Companion to American Studies. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell: 210-28.

Sexton, Jared & Huey Copeland (2003) "Raw Life: An Introduction." Qui Parle 13(2): 53-62.

Sharpe, Christina (2010) Monstrous Intimacies: Making Post-Slavery Subjects. Durham: Duke UP.

Sheperdson, Charles (2008) Lacan and the Limits of Language. New York: Fordham UP.

Wagner, Bryan (2009) Disturbing the Peace: Black Culture and the Police Power after Slavery. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP.

Weheliye, Alexander (2005) Phonographies: Grooves in Sonic Afro-Modernity. Durham: Duke UP.

Wilderson, Frank B., III (2008) Red, White and Black: Cinema and the Structure of U.S. Antagonisms. Durham: Duke UP.

———. (2009) "Grammar and Ghosts: The Performative Limits of African Freedom." Theater Survey 50(1): 119-125.

A slightly different and more extended version of this argument can be found in "The Social Life of Social Death: On Afro-Pessimism and Black Optimism," forthcoming in the peer-reviewed electronic journal InTensions, based at York University.

This last question is inspired by Etienne Balibar's (1991) chapter, "Racism and Nationalism," where he writes: "Rather than a single type or a juxtaposition of particular cases to be classified in formal categories, racism is itself a singular history, though admittedly not a linear one (with its sharp changes of direction, its subterranean phases and its explosions), connecting together the conjunctures of modern humanity and being, in its turn, affected by them" (40).

The phrase, "the afterlife of slavery," is drawn from Saidiya Hartman's 2007 memoir, Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). There she writes: "If slavery persists as an issues in the political life of black America, it is not because of an antiquarian obsession with bygone days or the burden of a too-long memory, but because black lives are still imperiled and devalued by a racial calculus and a political arithmetic that were entrenched centuries ago. This is the afterlife of slavery – skewed life chances, limited access to health and education, premature death, incarceration, and impoverishment. I, too, am the afterlife of slavery" (Hartman 2007: 6).

The bibliography is far too extensive to cite and runs from Ira Berlin's panoramic Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America (Harvard UP, 1998) to David Eltis & David Richardson's monumental Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade (Yale UP, 2010).

"I add two additional questions that arise out of my own institutional context and that are at least one strand of the impetus behind sustained, multi-year student organizing for the various intellectual enterprises that constitute black studies: Will the fact of black studies ameliorate the quotidian experiences of terror in black lives lived in an anti-black world? And, if not, what will be the relationship between the two?"

Christina Sharpe,
"Response to Jared Sexton"

In this sense, Wilderson's intervention bears a certain resemblance to Michel Foucault's well-known assessment in The Archeology of Knowledge, in which the author reflects on his own previous historical studies of the modern institutions of the psychiatric clinic, the hospital, and the prison in order to understand better the stakes of how he did what he did. And this despite the fact that Wilderson is, in other ways, rejecting, or at least revising, many of the Foucauldian precepts that guide black studies practitioners at present.

Fred Moten, "Uplift and Criminality," in Susan Gillman & Alys Weinbaum (eds.) Next to the Color Line: Gender, Sexuality and W.E.B. Du Bois (Univ. of Minnesota Press, 2007): 318.

I am thinking here of Cedric Robinson's classic Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition (UNC Press, 2000) or, say, Robin Blackburn's more recent The Making of New World Slavery (Verso, 2010).

Wilderson and Moten are deeply indebted to and engaged with black feminist scholarship and they advance sophisticated analyses in a feminist vein without declaring themselves either black male feminists or pro-feminist allies. The absence of such declarations does not mean, however, that solidarity is denied or disavowed. In fact, what strikes me in observing (and participating in) this debate is how tensions internal to black feminism are at work in fundamentally ways in black studies generally, between black men and black women to be sure, but also between black men as well.

"In the new college of liberal arts, the humanities is relegated to the most servile of positions in order to cut administrative and instructional costs even further and to make the practitioners of thought into ever more flexible workers."

Morgan Adamson,
"Response to John Mowitt"

For a discussion of the "Black Thought" event that situates it within recent developments in black studies more generally, see my chapter, "African American Studies," in John Carlos Rowe (ed.) A Concise Companion to American Studies (Blackwell, 2010). [more]

Participants included the late Lindon Barrett (UC Irvine, English), Denise Ferreira da Silva (University of London, Ethics), Cheryl Harris (UCLA, Law), Joy James (Williams College, Political Science), Ronald Judy (University of Pittsburgh, English), David Marriott (UC Santa Cruz, History of Consciousness), Fred Moten (Duke, English), Matt Richardson (UT-Austin, English), Riche Richardson (Cornell, Africana Studies), and Akinyele Umoja (Georgia State University, African-American Studies).

The notion of "the black (radical) tradition" is an amalgamation of Cedric Robinson's well-known theorization of "the black radical tradition" in his classic text, Black Marxism, and the concept of "the black tradition" theorized in Bryan Wagner's recent text (indebted to Robinson), Disturbing the Peace. [more]

Wagner's definition of blackness and his delineation of the distinction and connection between blackness and blacks are instructive for our understanding of the complexity of "the predicament of the ex-slave," so I quote it here at great length: "Perhaps the most important thing we have to remember about the black tradition is that Africa and its diaspora are much older than blackness. Blackness does not come from Africa. Rather, Africa and its diaspora become black at a particular stage in their history. [more]

It sounds a little strange to put it this way, but the truth of this description is widely acknowledged. Blackness is an adjunct to racial slavery. No doubt, we will continue to discuss and disagree about the factors that made blackness imaginable as well as the pacing of their influence. That process is quite complex, mixing legal doctrine from ancient slave systems with customs from the history of enslavement between Christians and Muslims to produce a new amalgam that would become foundational to the modern world. [more]

Blackness is a modern condition that cannot be conceptualized apart from the epochal changes in travel, trade, communication, consumption, industry, technology, taxation, labor, warfare, finance, insurance, government, bureaucracy, science, religion, and philosophy that were together made possible by the European systems of colonial slavery. Due to this complexity, we will likely never be able to say with certainty whether blackness starts before or during the sugar revolution, or consequently whether slavery follows from racism or racism follows from slavery. We can say, however, what blackness indicates: existence without standing in the modern world system. [more]

To be black is to exist in exchange without being a party to exchange. Being black means belonging to a state that is organized in part by its ignorance of your perspective—a state that does not, that cannot, know your mind. Adapting a formula from the eve of decolonization, we might say that blackness indicates a situation where you are anonymous to yourself. Reduced to what would seem its essential trait, blackness is a kind of invisibility. Taken seriously, these facts about blackness are enough to make problems for anyone who wants to talk about blackness as founding a tradition. [more]

Conceptualized not as a shared culture but as the condition of statelessness, blackness would seem to deny the perspective that is necessary to communicate a tradition. To speak as black, to assert blackness as a perspective in the world, or to argue the existence of the black world is to deny the one feature by which blackness is known. Because blackness is supernumerary, it is impossible to speak as black without putting yourself into an unavoidable tension with the condition you would claim. [more]

Speaking as black can mitigate your condition, or make you into an exception or credit to your condition, but it cannot allow you to represent your condition, as speaking is enough to make you unrepresentative. You can be clean, articulate, and also black, but to be all these things at once is to admit to a life scored by its division (or its doubleness). From [Somerset v. Stewart (1772)], there comes a line of thought that denies these facts on the grounds that individuals are audible to one another in nature before there is a law to intercede between them. [more]

The politics in this line is often communicated as a chiasmus about persons made into slaves and slaves made into persons, a trope whose limitation lies in the fact that it takes for granted a term ("person") that is unevenly intelligible in the natural rights lineage that determines what blackness means. By returning to that lineage, and in particular to the symbolic scene where the enemy combatant is made into the slave, I believe that it is possible to think harder and better about the predicament of the ex-slave, without recourse to the consolation of transcendence" (Wagner 2009: 1-2, emphases added).

This theme is explored throughout Moten's work, from his proleptic commentary in "Music Against the Law of Reading the Future and Rodney King" (1994) to his more direct address in "Black Op" (2008b). [more]

In the former, he writes: "This entails a radically different conception and enactment of organization – the spatio-temporal generativity in and through which we think those issues fundamental to the possibility of a sense, and alteration, of the world. The music continues to light and sound the form of precisely that organization which we must improvise. That form is improvisation itself, the political direction through the binary and its internal oscillation in the name of a totality which is, itself, the improvisation through the opposition of description and prescription, interpretation and change (61)." [more]

Or again: "If the emergence of the discourse of the other is to be fully manifest as truth rather than as an artifact of an all too facile assimilation or an equally simple rejection and submergence, it has to break the law, to break the law of the law, and it has to think in the most rigorous way the question of the future, to move into the future of the tradition's thinking of the future – breaking the laws of narrative and testimony, breaking through the prescriptive force of the hegemony of description, improvising the aporia of idiomicity, and interrupting the power of disciplinarity. [more]

That clues for the movement toward these projects are embedded in texts which are largely neglected outside of the interdiscipline of Afro-American Studies and in cultural practices which remain unthought beyond the boundaries of that interdiscipline, means that for the future... Afro-American studies remains, today, a necessity" (63 fn. 2). In the latter, he thus marks, in a sort of Freudian tone, a critical distinction, that is not (only) a binary, between the object and the aim of black studies, component parts of what Moten refers to at various points in his In the Break (2003) as "a freedom drive" (7, 26, 27). [more]

Following the lead of Cedric Robinson, Moten describes the object of black studies as Western civilization itself, which is to say that the occupation of black studies is the critique of (the anti-blackness of) Western civilization. Regarding the aim of black studies, Moten writes: "Robinson is equally adamant black studies' critical modalities are driven toward and directed by an aim – the ontological totality and its preservation – that, in all its secret openness, is called blackness" (Moten 2008b: 1744). [more]

The preservation of the ontological totality called blackness is not a conservative preservation of an unreconstructed essence, however, but rather an active affirmation, or affirmative action, a celebration that continually transforms that which it celebrates, repeating with and as difference. "Such articulation," for Moten, "implies and enacts an unorthodox essentialism wherein essence and performance are not mutually exclusive" (Moten 2003: 255, emphasis added). The wager and risk of black studies lies in striking the right balance. [more]

"Black studies' aim has always been bound up with and endangered by its object. When the prosecutorial gaze that is trained on that object (Western civilization) passes over that aim (blackness, which is not but nothing other than Western civilization), the danger is brutally, ironically redoubled" (Moten 2008b: 1744). Because blackness is "not but nothing other than Western civilization," it is always vulnerable to oversight, in the double sense of being overlooked by black studies and of falling within the jurisprudence of black studies. [more]

Indeed, in his presentation, "On (Non)Violence" (2010), for a recent symposium on "Law, Violence and the State" at the University of Southern California, Moten remarked to the effect that he always wants his writing to be comprised of "49.99% critique and 50.01% celebration." The aim of black studies should, in other words, cast the shortest shadow upon its object. It is not unimportant that we are dealing here with the value of a minor difference as the desired preponderance is indicated to be minimal, infinitesimal, quantum. Notably, Moten admitted on that occasion that he has yet been able to manage this tipping of the scale.

Chandler continues: "The matrix sketched out by the conjoined resourcefulness and limitations of this conceptualization, the aporias that are incessantly produced within it, effectively constitutes what we may call the problematic, the order of questions, that must concern us when we ask about the African American subject" (Chandler 2000: 262). Crucially, Chandler finds that this analytical presupposition characterizes not only those discourses aimed at describing the world of constituted power, but also those pursued "under the guise of recognizing the agency of African Americans in the making of some social text" (ibid: 261). [more]

So, for instance, the noted (formerly) Marxist historian, Eugene Genovese, did not escape this problem when his analytic focus shifted from a study of "the world the slaveholders made" (Genovese 1969) to a study of "the world the slaves made" (Genovese 1974). In other words, the topical foci or emphases on the agency of constituted power or the agency of resistance against constituted power are, as it were, two sides of the same analytical coin. On this score, the question before us is, then, to what extent do the analyses under scrutiny actually reproduce this aporia? Might they not be involved in a different order of questions altogether, or perhaps a different inflection of the problematic?

Elsewhere, Moten will nominate this consensus "the natural scientific attitude" (Moten 2008: 179) and associate it with "a certain being positive, if not positivism," "the straight-ahead discourse of the clear-eyed," of "that generation of American academic overseers – the non-seers who can't see, because they see so clearly – who constitute the prison guards of a certain understanding of the carceral" (Moten 2008: 216 fn. 6).

"Raw life" is, in fact, a concept drawn from Mbembe (2001). When Mbembe describes raw life as "a place and time of half-death – or, if one prefers, half life... a place where life and death are so entangled that it is no longer possible to distinguish them, or to say what is on the side of the shadow or its obverse," he is signaling a critique and a departure from Agamben's bare life, which concept requires a counterpart in the form of life in order to account for something like power and resistance (Mbembe 2001: 197). [more]

Mbembe indexes a move away from the theory and thematic of hegemony by way of his notion of "conviviality," "the dynamics of domesticity and familiarity, inscribing the dominant and the dominated within the same episteme" (ibid: 110) and he will develop this critique and departure in his "Necropolitics" (2003). For a reading of necropolitics that situates, in a very preliminary way, the formulation of the concept with respect to the ensemble of questions and assumptive logic imprecisely named afro-pessimism, see Sexton (2010).

I am borrowing the phrase "racial discourses of life philosophy" from Jones (2010) and "the problem of the Negro as a problem for thought" from Chandler (2008). What Jones finds in her exploration of the emergence of life philosophy in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Europe – and its appropriation by the Négritude movement – is not a coherent intellectual history, or even a dialectal movement or a simple contest of meaning, but a profound convolution of thought about the nature of nature and the essence of the living arising alongside a certain confabulation about a life force set against the machine, the mechanical and the mechanistic. [more]

These questions were raised by the institutional projections of modern science informed by the industrialization and urbanization attendant to a globalizing capitalist world-system in crisis and the twilight of Europe's global colonial enterprise, all in the intermezzo between the international abolitionist movement and the movements for civil rights and decolonization that move in and across the black (radical) tradition. The "fact of blackness" refers, of course, to Charles Markmann's 1967 English translation of Fanon's famous fifth chapter in Black Skins, White Masks, "L'expérience vécue du Noir." [more]

Lewis Gordon, Ronald Judy, and Ato Sekyi-Otu have each suggested the title be translated as "The Lived Experience of the Black" and note how the Markmann rendering loses almost entirely Fanon's engagement with phenomenology and his central focus on lived experience not as "the objectively given or an event [i.e., as fact], but the process in which objects acquire their status as such for-consciousness" (Judy 1996: 53-4). Richard Philcox follows the suggestion in his 2008 translation. Moten, in turn, is working in the space between the two translations.

On the notion of biopolitics, see generally Lemke (2011) and on affirmative biopolitics, see especially Esposito (2008). Cf. Marriott (2007), especially his "Afterword: Ice Cold." There Marriot writes: "death as lawless violence is the predicament and possibility of who we are and might become, here, now, the tenses through which we belong irreducibly to this time" (234). I want to stress that Marriott would not read Fanon against those aspects of vitalism that link Nietzsche and Bergson to Foucault and Deleuze by way of Heidegger and Derrida, for instance. [more]

Rather, Marriott demonstrates how deeply Nietzschean Fanon already is, how profoundly driven his writings are – from Black Skin, White Masks to Wretched of the Earth – by the force of the affirmative. This is true already in Marriott's first book, On Black Men, but it is readily discernible in his second book, Haunted Life. For a recent and fuller account of these themes in Fanon, see Marriott (2011).

"Sexton makes clear that the critical insistence on the existence of black social life would have to be contended with amidst claims on and claims of the continuing relevance and persistence of black social death and vice-versa. But as this work also makes clear the existence of black social life in all of its modalities does not alter the fact of black social death."

Christina Sharpe,
"Response to Jared Sexton"

The following list of scholars of black performance is only a loosely associated sampling, but each pursues a project with an assumptive logic brought to question by afro-pessimism and vice versa. See, for instance, Brooks (2006), Brown (2008), Johnson (2003), Munoz (1999), and Weheliye (2005).

For instance, Moten writes of "that trying, even neurotic, oscillation between the exposure and the replication of a regulatory maneuver whose force is held precisely in the assumption that it comes before what it would contain" (Moten 2008: 178). [more]

Or, again, in describing "the constant repetition of bare life" just mentioned, he raises a figure of regression in reference to "the annoying, grating tone that one imagines must have been the most prominent feature of the voice of that kid who said the emperor has no clothes" and then immediately qualifies the point through negation – "It’s not that one wants to devalue in any way the efficacy of such truth telling, such revelation..." (ibid: 216 fn. 6). In an earlier version of the article that would become "Black Op," Moten refers to "a certain discourse on the relation between blackness and death," of which afro-pessimism is the example par excellence, as "tragically neurotic" (Moten 2007: 9).

It strikes me that the arrangement of afro-pessimism and black optimism in this discourse is a repetition with difference or variation on a theme of Moten's discussion of Hartman in the opening pages of his In the Break (2003). For an admittedly inchoate critique of that discussion, see Sexton (2010b). I would note here as well that the present exploration recalls and refashions the extremely complicated discourse between and among Lacan and Derrida, especially over the inheritance of the Freudian discovery. [more]

On that score, see generally Muller & Richardson (1988) and Forrester (1991), but also the three-way debate involving Judith Butler, Ernesto Laclau and Slavoj Zizek in their Contingency, Hegemony, Universality (2000). Much of the confusion and clarification about structural analysis in the wake of post-structuralism is highlighted by Zizek's contributions, especially "Holding the Place." For more recent studies that effectively displace the supposed antagonism between Lacan and Derrida, see Egginton (2007), Hurst (2008), Lewis (2008), Sheperdson (2008). On the inhabitation of "pathology without pathos," see the discussion of Nyong'o (2002) below.

In emphasizing just how motley is this crew, it should be said that afro-pessimism (I use the lower-case deliberately) is not, as Wilderson himself notes, "anything as ostentatious as a school of thought" and the moniker "neither infringes on their individual differences nor exaggerates their fidelity to a shared set of assumptions" (Wilderson 2008: 58). Wilderson lists a dozen or so among the "who's who" of afro-pessimists in his text, but there is no one on that list, including this author, that identifies themselves or their work by that term. [more]

That does not mean I think the heading is simply an imposition. The term emerges as an effect of a reading, a reading that is compelling in many ways, even as I find the term enabling and disabling precisely to the extent that it remains open to a supposed contradistinction to black optimism. The term, and its counterpart, is also open to confusion with respect to another iteration in the field of African Studies in the 1980s and 90s regarding "the perception [among Western creditor countries] of sub-Saharan Africa as a region too riddled with problems for good governance and economic development" (Onwudiwe 2005). [more]

My fear is that the interlocution between afro-pessimism and black optimism today resonates too strongly with the limitations of that earlier debate between afro-pessimism and afro-optimism before the backdrop of structural adjustment. See Hartman & Wilderson (2003) for an account of Wilderson's adaptation of this term. "Generalized impropriety" is from Marriott (2011).

This is to say that Wilderson’s afro-pessimism insists less on the proper way to think about the relation between blackness and blacks and more on the proper way to think about the relation between blackness and blacks, on the one hand, and non-blackness and non-blacks, on the other. In other words, it is less interested in pursuing the intramural conversation within its precincts than it is in revisiting the conditions of possibility for that conversation in the contemporary moment. [more]

For instance, Wilderson writes: “No other place-names depend upon such violence. No other nouns owe their integrity to this semiotics of death. Meditations on African performances and subjectivity are always already spoken by this grammar and haunted by these ghosts. For whatever ‘African’ means when spoken by Africnas, whatever it means in the moment of performance, that cannot change Africa’s paradigmatic relation to other place-names and the people of those places. Performance cannot reconcile this gap between the place of slaves and the places of all others” (Wilderson 2010: 120).

"Put simply, academic intellectuals are encamped in the 'self-assertive' university that now stands in the ruins for which it had been destined. Inside, strewn in some forensically legible blast pattern are to be found the 'interdisciplinarity,' 'internationalism' and 'diversity' that are fast becoming buzzing beacons of banality."

John Mowitt,
"The Humanities and the University in Ruin"

"What, then, is the relationship of the ante to anti-blackness: is it one of time (priority) or position (before or in front of), a wager, a demand to pay (up) or a marker of the stakes, the risk, the cost (and benefits) of anti- blackness? All of the above? The both/and instead of the either/or?"

Christina Sharpe,
"Response to Jared Sexton"

Nyong'o (2002) continues: "At bottom, the shame of racist [discourse] resides in the idea that 'I am thought of as less than human'. And yet, the very shame that floods through at that thought, a shame that, were we not human, we would have no capacity to feel, is our best internal evidence that the thought is wrong and vulgar: I feel (shame), therefore I am (human). Acknowledging the permanence of our shame, and its usefulness, may mark the beginning... [of a response to the call] to 'begin enjoying the humor' again. [more]

The point may not be to become individual and modern, to ever achieve a kind of prophylactic invulnerability to the [discourse] that says 'Shame on you! Shame on you for being black!' We do not, at this late date, need yet newer formulations of pride to negate this shame. The point may be to locate, within the transformations of our shame, a way out of scapegoating, and thus, out of the bloodletting that accompanies with such monotonous reliability our attempts to regain our innocence" (389).

Judy (1996) makes a similar point in his reading of Fanon: "In revealing, through his analysis of the existence of the black, the anomalies of affect responsible for what Fanon comes to call nègro-phobogénèsis, he reveals a pathology that is coterminous with the very symbolic order of modernity, and not just colonialism" (54).

It may be that here I am simply returning Moten's message in inverted form: "How can we fathom a social life that tends toward death, that enacts a kind of being-toward-death, and which, because of such tendency and enactment, maintains a terribly beautiful vitality? Deeper still, what are we to make of the fact of a sociality that emerges when lived experience is distinguished from fact, in the fact of life that is implied in the very phenomenological gesture/analysis within which Fanon asserts black social life as, in all but the most minor ways, impossible? [more]

How is it that the off harmony of life, sociality, and blackness is the condition of possibility of the claim that there is no black social life? Does black life, in its irreducible and impossible sociality and precisely in what might be understood as its refusal of the status of social life that is refused it, constitute a fundamental danger – an excluded but immanent disruption – to social life? What will it have meant to embrace this matrix of im/possibility, to have spoken of and out of this suspension? What would it mean to dwell on or in minor social life? This set of questions is imposed upon us by Fanon. [more]

At the same time, and in a way that is articulated most clearly and famously by W. E. B. Du Bois, this set of questions is the position, which is also to say the problem, of blackness" (Moten 2008a: 188). Moten is gesturing here to the work of Chandler on Du Bois cited above, but see also Marriott (2007, 2011) regarding a reading of Fanon very different from Moten's.