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In these books, as well as in his numerous articles and essays, Sexton addresses themes of contemporary political and popular culture, or more broadly the cultural politics of the post-civil rights era United States, focusing on questions of race and sexuality, policing and prisons, multiracial coalition, and contemporary film.
The range of themes addressed in Sexton’s work is motivated by a central commitment to the field of black studies. Importantly, black studies is here understood not as one field among many, such that it would become identifiable through its division from others. Black studies—as “an internally differentiated project”—concerns what Sexton describes as “an unlimited field,” one that ramifies upon, because it is implicated in, all fields of study.
This interview attends to and foregrounds Sexton’s theorization of the meaning, stakes, and implications of the unlimited field of black studies. While such theorization is bound to matters that entail a sociological specificity, the questions that thereby emerge likewise entail the opening up of “a whole series of ontological matters.” Such double entailment follows from Sexton’s focus on the singular “sociopolitical status” of blackness in the modern world: if blackness “opens the space for articulating what is unthought,” this is because blackness is “that which relates to the undoing or unraveling of every social bond” and so inhabits them, negatively, from within.
…sometimes theory is lifeline sometimes i hurt too / much to think…
– Sean D. Henry-Smith, “the murder encircles or,
a whiff of every spider”
Daniel Barber: In “The Social Life of Social Death,” you speak of “a procedure for reading, for study, for black study or, in the spirit of the multiple, for black studies … wherever they may lead. And, contrary to the popular misconception, they do lead everywhere. And they do lead everywhere, even and especially in their dehiscence.” This is a lesson that I am constantly learning from the reading of your work. You characterize such black study as “an exemplary transmission: emulation of a process of learning through the posing of a question, rather than imitation of a form of being,” and it is inarguable that your writing has been at the vanguard of such exemplification.
Many of your recent essays have explicitly pressed the stakes of a dehiscent “everywhere.” The incommensurateness of the position of blackness with discourses of the universal—which, as you demonstrated in Amalgamation Schemes, remains the case even in a purportedly pluralized, expansive discourse such as multiracialism—marks an opening up all over, according to the unthought recesses of what Dionne Brand has called “a tear in the world.” I can imagine this everywhere coming to be interpreted as “more” universal than universality, and I wonder how you would think about this? Dehiscence—or, along similar lines, the ungrounding entailed by deracination—certainly exceeds the universal, but such excess would seem to refuse its being related in terms of universality.
Jared Sexton: First, let me thank you again for your rich and generative questions here, and for the careful and sustained reading required to formulate them. I say that especially because I am aware of the ways that, for all of the moments of real critical engagement I’ve enjoyed since entering academia, aspects of my writing, as one instance in a much larger collective project, have been fairly consistently distorted and, at times, caricatured for some time now. Some of that has to do of course with very broad developments in intellectual life in the United States—academic celebrity culture, social media “hot takes,” “me too” research protocols, the denigration of the arts and humanities, etc.—and some of it has to do with an understandable, if disagreeable, anxiety about conserving radical thought under reactionary conditions. But then too I think much of it reflects the type of paralogical affect, or animus, that Frantz Fanon explored so provocatively in his time and that I have, again among many others, tried for a while now to understand better. It strikes me as a ressentiment not of the slave, but rather about and against the slave, and those thought to be slavish.
I add that last qualification—about the slavish—in response to some fellow members of the black professoriate, who have on occasion made the supposedly knock-out criticism against the discourse of afro-pessimism that attempting to think, as I’ve suggested, from the vantage or position of the slave is tantamount to assuming the professionally self-serving, theoretically self-aggrandizing pretense of speaking as a slave or for the enslaved in the historic instance. (Keep to one side that, for all the longstanding and necessary concerns about “who can speak” [Roof and Wiegman, 1995], ascribing this method of purported advancement is not unrelated to the old conservative epithet about “race hustlers” or “poverty pimps.” There are far better avenues for the professionally ambitious!) As if this were a kind of ethnographic appropriation convertible to capital gains; as if this were not about a kind of attack on the ethnographic imagination altogether; as if none of us have read anything about the dangers of speaking for others or using risky figures of speech or generalizing from the specific or abstracting from the concrete. “You are not a slave,” we are told, “you are a gainfully employed university professor, a member of the black middle class (or, if you prefer, the lumpen bourgeoisie noire), and don’t you forget it!” What they are also declaring is, of course, for themselves: “Do not confuse me for a slave; I am, like my non-black peers, a professor and, moreover, a full-fledged human being, a citizen of the world. I am somebody!” Needless to say, this is based on a common misunderstanding of slavery as economic condition or even legal standing, rather than sociopolitical (and I would add psychosexual) status, which is always, and by definition, relative. Well.
Angela Davis contributed an essay to a 1999 anthology called Black Genius, edited by Walter Mosley, Manthia Diawara, Clyde Taylor, and Regina Austin, that outlined the devastating impact of policing and mass incarceration on contemporary black communities in the US post-civil rights. In “Prison Abolition,” Davis connects this pressing political problem in complex ways to long-term and large-scale historical confluences of racial domination, capitalist patriarchy, and the regulation and exploitation of sexuality. Along the way, though, she speaks particularly of “our historical tendency toward willed forgetfulness regarding slavery” as a principal obstacle to a more adequate collective understanding of the struggle for freedom, justice, and equality in the present tense. (This piece would have been written right at the time that Davis was co-founding the national prison abolition group Critical Resistance.) She continues: “We have inherited a fear of memories of slavery. It is as if to remember and acknowledge slavery would amount to our being consumed by it” (198). What could this possibly mean? What happens to us if we are, so to speak, consumed by slavery? Do we lose the ability to differentiate ourselves from or to imagine ourselves as other than slaves? Do we find ourselves, despite hemispheric proclamations of emancipation and overseas declarations of independence, asking not when but whether slavery has ended? Would we be vexed by the suspicion that it lives on in our age in ways big and small?
Black studies as a field is, or black studies as iterations of an internally differentiated project are, involved in an ongoing attempt to think about things not only unthought, but also perhaps unthinkable. What is a world made and unmade by slavery? What is a world torn asunder by its emergence and evolution, and what is it to inhabit such a world? When Dionne Brand (2001: 4) writes about “a tear in the world” in her brilliant text A Map to the Door of No Return (a text I was thankfully introduced to by Christina Sharpe, who has since published a very powerful book, In the Wake , on related themes of being and blackness), that tear is not simply a figure for the enslaved, not only for the devastation propelling the African Diaspora alone, not only for those, as Fanon puts it, that have had “their customs and the agencies to which they refer … abolished because they were in contradiction with a new civilization that imposed its own” (Fanon, 2008b: 90). It is also a statement, an offering or gift, really, for thinking differently about space, time, being, existence and so on—a whole series of ontological matters—through an inextricable and inescapable nexus of sociopolitical problems giving rise to divergent ethical dilemmas. How one takes up one ethical dilemma or another as their occupation, or preoccupation, speaks to their positioning on the associated sociopolitical problems and ontological matters alike. The field of black studies helps me understand all of this in a way nothing else does and black studies in any field seem always to be the best around, meaning they exhibit the greatest explanatory power.
So, this tear in the world, this tearing of the world, this torn world … you see indexes of its ramifications within and across the field of black studies itself—which for me is an unlimited field—that being part of the dehiscence I mentioned in my earlier essay. I initially borrowed from the Écrits (2006) of Jacques Lacan, where dehiscence refers, in part, to the internal splitting of the subject by the imposition of language and the abolition of access, conscious access, to what might be called a real relation to being. Thereafter, one must wrestle with language to articulate the inarticulable and, in the process, live out and live with the effects of such signifying action at the level of embodiment, affect, memory, and the like. But dehiscence has a helpful polyvalence—thanks to Richard Yoder for speaking to this—indicating, in surgical medicine, the opening up of a wound along the lines of incision (either because the wound was inadequately sutured or has become infected or subjected to further trauma), or, in botany, the opening up of plants along a seam at the age of maturity as a means of dissemination, or, in otology, the perforation in the inner ear labyrinth causing chronic disequilibrium or vertigo. These themes of wounding, dissemination, and vertigo all loom large in my thinking.
What I have variously called “the position of the unthought,” following Saidiya Hartman’s dialogue with my colleague and comrade Frank B. Wilderson III about her first book, Scenes of Subjection (1997); or “the black position,” following Wilderson’s own writing in Incognegro (2008) and Red, White, and Black (2010) and since; or a “blackened vantage or lens” (which I have tried to distinguish from anything like “black experience” or “the views of black people”) is a recurrent attempt at phrasing how to think about and within that wounded, disseminative vertigo that is blackness, insofar as one can be interested in something that is against one’s interest and perhaps against the whole notion of interest as such. Blackness is not only that which relates to the constitutive outside of any social bond—whether that outside be excluded or included is secondary—but also that which relates to the undoing or unraveling of every social bond. To talk about blackness I think you need a tolerance, an enthusiasm even, for a confusion of the singular and the universal or a breakdown of the relation and meaning of those terms. If blackness is, as you nicely put it, about a sort of dehiscent “everywhere,” then I would add only that this dimension that is “‘more’ universal than universality,” this excessive or, to cite Lacan again, this extimate relation to universality is not simply incommensurate—which designation might preserve and protect universality from the threat of blackness. It is also antagonistic, we might even say protagonistic, toward universality; universality must first deny a singular, nonlocal blackness to make its claim, or for anyone to make any claim in its name. I’m not saying that there can be no black universality; there most certainly can be. But a black universality, the universality of blackness, is one that cannot settle or rest or accept what is universal within it. It is a ceaselessly universalizing universality, attentive to, insistent on, and skeptical about every particularity, every local situation through which it is articulated.
DB: In reading your work, I frequently encounter a mode of expression that collapses two opposed terms into one another, or renders them indiscernible, thereby drawing attention to their simultaneous articulation. Your remarks just now provide an instance of what I have in mind: you say that the relation between blackness and universality is “antagonistic, we might even say protagonistic.” If I’m understanding it correctly, the point here is not that protagonism’s affirmation provides a criterion or progressive aim for antagonism’s negativity—there is no mediation (much less supersession) of the latter. It’s rather that protagonism is already there, precisely as antagonism. There’s a refusal of any “affirmative” imperative to move beyond, leave behind, or scale down antagonism, and this is simultaneous with a refusal to accept that such insistence on (the ongoing, unthought character of) antagonism is anything less than (a baseless) protagonism—one perhaps indexed when you just described Brand’s writing of “a tear in the world” as “an offering.”
The articulation of this simultaneity tends to take place in your writing through an intensification of negative terms. I’m thinking once again of your use of dehiscence, as well as of terms such as uninheritable, inescapable, degeneration, or decline. Yet such intensification of negativity—which may very well be the wrong word—has nothing to do with the productivity or reproductivity of a Hegelian dialectic, where the negative ultimately joins together with what has been negated and thus engenders the future. As you’ve put it, when expressing a politics of abolition: “Not the dialectics of loss and recovery but rather the loss of the dialectics of loss and recovery as such” (2016b: 589).
JS: I like the way you’ve linked this question of an “intensification of negativity” with the attempt to think opposition as something other than a type of dialectic (without thereby being simply non-dialectical or making recourse to an affirmation of difference in itself). It occurs to me now that these methods or habits of thought you’re pointing out did not have philosophical origins for me, but rather began fairly practically in attempting to better explain to myself my displeasure and dissatisfaction with the pleasure and satisfaction of so much scholarship—academic or activist or both—that committed itself to struggles for liberation or the triumvirate of “freedom, justice, and equality.” I found myself recurrently provoked to complicate things, to give pause to the moment, not because I’m against pleasure and satisfaction, or because I fail to see the situational necessity for action or declaration, but rather because I felt too many of us, myself included, were too often selling ourselves short, so to speak, banking on the inevitability of our own failure if we were to think, or do, anything else, or to take things further. I’m not saying we could’ve succeeded, whatever that would’ve meant in any case, but only that we feared failure in a way that imposed an unhelpful limitation. For all of the overheated rhetoric and occasionally interesting formulations (admittedly, many were muddled and boring), I thought: “This can’t be all there is to want in or of or for the world. The demand is so much bigger, and you don’t demand because you have a reasonable expectation of realization.” We’re talking about something unfolding at the level of desire that is allowed generally to inform the practical-theoretical activity of whole academic fields, intellectual discourses, social practices, and political formations without a critical interpretation. So these figures of negativity in my writing arise from an effort to punctuate things in a different way.
In this protracted effort, of course, there is a necessary element of defense against the undertones—or, more usually, the clear overtones—of anti-blackness that provide both the message and the medium of the radical betrayal of radicality in thought and action, a certain ceding of potentiality (not to be confused with mere possibility) in search of ground, base, foundation. Operating without need of a base, a willingness to operate in a way that is groundless, baseless, without foundation is not just the good old anti-foundationalism that exercised the minds of late-twentieth century philosophers, historians, political theorists, and literary and cultural critics; in part, because there is no rejection of a concept of totality here. Fanon was tracking something like this, I think, in his insistence, late in Black Skin, White Masks, on “introducing invention into existence” (Fanon, 2008a: 179). And on this point I really prefer the Markmann translation to the Philcox translation. Philcox has it as “introducing invention into life” (Fanon, 2008b: 204), which unnecessarily restricts Fanon’s commentary to the realm of life, or the bios/zoe couplet, and leaves aside the entire realm of non-life, or geos (Povinelli, 2016).
This intensification of negativity, this negativity stretched to its extreme or limit, this black negativity, might be what we otherwise call afro-pessimism. It is worth recalling, on that score, that intensification—the introduction of ever greater tension into a material or medium or movement through stretching and straining—shares an etymological root, the Latin tendere, with the whole notion of tenderness, emblematized by the outstretched hand. So, the very procedure that complicates thinking, that makes things difficult and uncomfortable, that ruins the initial plan, that throws things off balance, we might even say that which blackens things, is also that which enables the potential for genuine care, precisely because it requires the risk of genuine questioning, or, more to the point, a genuine assumption of desire. Quaerere: to seek, to ask, to desire. I think every question is an offering; it is just that questions aren’t really asked that often; mostly there are statements in the form of rhetorical questions. So, this offering of the question posed by and as blackness is a dangerous, disorienting offering because it opens the space for articulating what is unthought—and encountering what is unthinkable—in the material-discursive activity involved and making it all available for judgment at a fundamental level.
Let me say one more thing about the relation between defense and the outstretched hand. Part of my approach in defending aspects of black studies or black politics, as instances or arenas of collective practices informed by an engagement with blackness, has been to avoid extolling the many virtues of the black radical tradition (I simply assume as much for myself and for my readers) while demonstrating what is problematic in the arguments of those critics who claim they have discovered therein some fatal flaw or other. In effect, I try to show how the critics fail to make their respective cases and, moreover, how they fail to do so in strikingly similar ways. I just saw Steven Seagal’s debut film, Above the Law (1988), for the umpteenth time last week and it put me in mind of aikido, the Japanese martial art he practices. What you see in aikido, described by its founder Morihei Ueshiba as “the art of peace” or “the way of harmony,” is a system of defense that blends with and protects the attacker while redirecting and releasing the force of the aggressive movement. It implies the attacker’s weakness, rather than displaying the defender’s strength. More accurately, it reveals that one is weak insofar as one is attacking because to attack is to move off-center and to overextend oneself, to reach out in a compromising way, opening oneself up to being thrown or pinned by the force of one’s own aggressive movement. There is no such thing as a positive aggressive strength, only a negative defensive one. Attackers always only attack themselves. We can truly approach another only in the experience of our mutual weakness. (This is something I’ve discussed over the years with Jaye Austin Williams, who is now teaching at Bucknell University. Her research and writing on black feminist playwrights Kia Corthron, Lynne Nottage, and Suzan-Lori Parks is animated, in part, by her own martial arts background. In addition to her work as scholar-educator, writer-director, and actor-singer, she’s also a 4th Dan aikidoist.)
This is the crucial distinction: the baseless, centered outreach of tenderness, and the well founded, off-center overreach of aggression. Is it any surprise, in an anti-black world, that these gestures are confused by so many, those that mistake an invitation for a threat? How many have resented the invitation blackness makes and defended themselves against it with lethal consequence? The intensification of negativity is a way of thinking seriously with and through the various black colloquialisms to “break it down.” Blackness might be that spirit of inquiry and argumentation that, borrowing a phrase from Public Enemy, says “bring that beat back,” a gesture that says you didn’t really understand all there is yet to understand, feel all there is yet to feel, hear all there is yet to hear—within your own experience. We have no trouble seeing how black musical forms have not only done right by the diverse aesthetic practices they have engaged around the world, but have also often improved upon or enhanced the source material. They have at the very least made something else beautiful and discerning right alongside: complement, supplement, compliment. The global histories of jazz and hip-hop and the increasingly visible itinerary of black art song are just several of the more prominent examples. Could we develop a similar sensibility for appreciating how black thought attempts something kindred? So, too, black political movement. Sylvia Wynter (2006) has that fantastic line in her interview with the journal Proud Flesh: “When I write, I want to sound in theory the way Aretha Franklin sounds in song.” By that she means not only—only!—that she wants all that she writes to be liberating, but also that she wants to allow her thinking to unfold in a non-linear, creative fashion, as a poesis of thought. Many have waxed romantic about this poesis of late, but it is a process that involves all of the destructive and violent counter-forces of a peaceful martial art that can destroy your joints and break your bones and even end your life if you don’t figure out how to go with the flow.
DB: “There is no such thing as a positive aggressive strength, only a negative defensive one.” This remark, as index of an aikido according to blackness, brings to mind a question you ask in one of your recently published articles:
is there not a way to think … about a violence indifferent to hope, violence unmotivated by rage, violence irreducible to the dialectics of love and hate? Is there a violence that, as Nikki Giovanni once said, simply ‘cannot take the weight of a constant degradation’ (Fowler, 1992: 96), a violence that operates as a response per se, as what we might call defense without positive content? (2016a).
I wonder whether it would make sense to connect the line of thought you’re pursuing here to the question of—the question that is—“the relation between defense and the outstretched hand.”
I’m also struck by the resonance between your emphasis, following Wynter, on a mode of thinking that “unfold[s] in a non-linear fashion” and your articulation of negativity within the context of your writing. Such negativity is inseparable from the demand—which is “so much bigger”—in that it insists, amidst delimitative aggression, on this demand’s unfolding. If one means of delimiting this demand is imposed by the linearity of an “expectation of realization”—by investment in linear temporality, a horizon of the historically successive and successful—then negativity insists on, or as, a question of time. Specifically, it asks not whether the demand is realizable, but rather why the demand must be thought within, delimited by, the terms of realizability. In this moment, “the question posed by and as blackness” seems to emerge as the seeking, asking, desiring—the offering—of time itself.
One of the ways in which I see your work posing this questioning of time, or offering this time of questioning, is through the motif of “interminability.” In fact, I sense that such interminability is at issue in what you’ve here described as “a ceaselessly universalizing universality” or, once again, as a demand in excess of any presently imaginable form of realization. The absence of a term adequate to the demand is also the absence of a terminus and of the calculability that such a point of arrival could claim to make possible. In this vein, you’ve described abolition as “the interminable radicalization of every radical movement” (2016b: 593) and invoked “an ethics of the real, a politics of the imperative, engaged in its interminably downward movement” (2016a). Your elaboration of this downward—one might say unfathomable—itinerary draws on an engagement with David Marriott’s account of the subjection of black persons to “the interminable time of meaningless, impersonal dying” (Marriott, 2007: 230; cited, with emphasis added, in Sexton, 2015: 168). I mention this particularly in view of your remark that the real according to which interminability unfolds is a matter of non-life.
JS: I think you’re right to draw this link between “an aikido according to [or with] blackness” and my earlier, speculative thoughts on black feminist violence as a practice of “response per se, a defense without positive content.” We are, in a very basic way, always responding to the world, to ourselves, to the world in ourselves, to ourselves in the world, more than we are initiating, in thought and action. Any initiative or initiation would seem to be marked as such by a kind of permanent time lag or belatedness in which all thought is afterthought and all action is retroaction. But, then, we are also always active in that fundamental responsiveness, so much so that even passivity (whether waiting or resting or languishing) is a type of activity, that of our active being, that which brings forth life from the non-life with which it is commingled. Our being is active, but that doesn’t mean our being is always in-action. Why, in our political and intellectual circles, all the pointed concern about activity, why the worry, or fear, about being misunderstood as passive, individually and collectively? And why the close association between being passive and being victim or between passive-being and victim-being? Indeed, that tension between active/passive states provides the principal ground for the symbolic and material production of differences of race, gender, sexuality, class—all differently arrayed for different reasons, of course.
I’m reminded, on that note, of a question Wilderson asked me years ago about an often overlooked passage in Fanon, from his critique of Octave Mannoni in Chapter 4 of Black Skin, White Masks, where Fanon is meditating on the aim of his vocation as a politically engagé mental health clinician. (I have some thoughts, by the way, on what I think Fanon misses in his reading of Mannoni in my article, “Curtain of the Sky”). Here’s the passage:
As a psychoanalyst, I should help my patient to become conscious of his unconscious and abandon his attempts at a hallucinatory whitening, but also to act in the direction of a change in the social structure. In other words, the black man should no longer be confronted by the dilemma, turn white or disappear; but he should be able to take cognizance of a possibility of existence. In still other words, if society makes difficulties for him because of his color, if in his dreams I establish the expression of an unconscious desire to change color, my objective will not be that of dissuading him from it by advising him to “keep his place”; on the contrary, my objective, once his motivations have been brought into consciousness, will be to put him in a position to choose action (or passivity) with respect to the real source of the conflict—that is, toward the social structures (Fanon, 2008b: 74-75).
So, Fanon moves initially from this deceptively recognizable psycho-political activist guideline, where the unreason of alienated compliance gives way to the reason of disalienated resistance, to a parenthetical clinical modulation, where he no longer seeks to enable action per se, and action in a particular direction at that, but rather decision; decision in the proper sense, rather than the forced choice, the vel, of hallucinatory whiteness: “turn white or disappear.” No decision can be made within the terms of a forced choice, Fanon reveals, only a decision about the terms of its imposition. (Aside: the Philcox translation has it as: “whiten or perish.” I like the Markmann phrasing better here because it stays with the dynamics of hyper/in/visibility that Fanon is exploring, the peculiar problem of overdetermination from without, which is to say of anti-black racialization, of victimized appearance, but also of a certain ethics or aesthetics of disappearance that we can glean from a reading of Fanon. Kara Keeling (2007) and Huey Copeland (2013) and Simone Browne (2015) have elaborated on this nexus generatively in their respective work.)
Wilderson’s question was to the effect of: What would a properly decided, freely chosen, passivity toward the social structure look like? Is there such a thing—ethically, politically—as radical passivity? (I ended my first book with a slightly modified reference from Thomas Carl Wall’s (1999) text bearing that very title. I wonder about this genuinely still and tend to think, yes, there is such a thing.) Žižek, to take another well-known example, has played on the pop psychological notion of “passive aggressive behavior” in his withering critique of so much leftist activism today. In The Parallax View, he writes:
perhaps, one should assert this attitude of passive aggressivity as a proper radical political gesture, in contrast to aggressive passivity, the standard ‘interpassive’ mode of our participation in socio-ideological life in which we are active all the time in order to make it sure that nothing will happen, that nothing will really change. In such a constellation, the first truly critical (‘aggressive’, violent) step is to withdraw into passivity, to refuse to participate—Bartleby’s ‘I would prefer not to’ is the necessary first step which as it were clears the ground for a true activity, for an act that will effectively change the coordinates of the constellation (Žižek, 2009: 342).
Now, Zizek’s “Bartleby politics” are obviously not quietist, insofar as they are meant to prepare the way for a true political act. (Frédéric Neyrat  has a related conception: “Rather than its heart, passivity should be the skin of politics. Without passivity, without a ‘negative capability,’ to refer to Keats’s notion, there isn’t any creative imagination, this chaotic imagination that generates the promises of new worlds.” And, not for nothing, Hortense Spillers (2003) makes another, earlier argument for “negative capability” in a pair of essays first published in the 1990s, “The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual: A Post-Date” and “All The Things You Could Be By Now If Sigmund Freud’s Wife Was Your Mother: Psychoanalysis and Race.” But the interregnum that opens up between the frenetic, aggressively passive “activism” of the current socio-ideological constellation—in which “the anxious expectation that nothing will happen” competes with “the desperate demand to do something”—and that new constellation brought into being by the introduction of some fundamental indeterminancy—a negativity that is, as you rightly note above, strictly unfathomable—that interregnum would seem to require the cultivation of an oxymoronic passive activity. Does it make sense to speak of a need for “passivism” (not to be confused with the homophonic term “pacifism”)? Think of the performative contradiction of trying to relax; the harder you try to attain it, the more it evades you. As every athlete worth their salt knows, your best performance requires your least effort. The more you relax, the more intensely you can exert yourself. In this scenario, you do more the less you try.
It’s worth thinking about this seriously in the Trump era (using Trump here as a symbol for the consolidation of a whole post-civil rights, post-cold war, post-9/11 dispensation), given how greatly the ongoing reactionary campaign benefits from and requires any and all imagery of protest, political or pedestrian, as evidence—“alternative factual evidence”—supporting a narrative, ultimately, of white victimization and oppressive black power (and all the conflictual transliterations of this antagonism seen today—from the land and resource battles in the heartland to the travel bans at the borders). Given, that is, how frustratingly ineffective that protest seems to be in the face of an entire infrastructure that not only absorbs resistance, but solicits it too. It makes you nostalgic for the days of good old-fashioned repression and co-optation (days which, of course, never really existed in black), because at least then you knew you were on to something truly oppositional, subversive, alternate. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that, under such conditions, black (or blackened) artists are drawn with some regularity to paradoxical ideas about fighting anti-blackness by over-identifying with its desire to disappear or distort or disfigure blackness, essentially taking it over and enforcing it hyperbolically, satirically, even vindictively. I think Paul Beatty’s literature has done this to great effect for twenty years or more—from White Boy Shuffle (1996) to The Sellout (2015)—and you could add to that titles like Darius James’s Negrophobia (1992) and Kola Boof’s Sexy Part of the Bible (2011); consider as well the work of Betye Saar and Kara Walker and Michael Ray Charles in the visual arts, the comedy of Dave Chappelle and Leslie Jones, or films like Spike Lee’s Bamboozled (2000) and Lars von Trier’s Manderlay (2005) and Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017).
I don’t want to get too much into the weeds of the current conjuncture and lose track of the larger structural problem posed by blackness and anti-blackness, a problem that confounds the very distinction between structure and conjuncture in the first place. It is not just the exigencies of the present moment or the strategic and tactical challenges facing the Movement for Black Lives that raise the question of how to intervene, of how to introduce “invention into existence,” as Fanon put it. What I’ve called “a groundless or baseless politics that does not proceed from a margin of power, a politics with no (final) recourse to foundations of any sort, a politics forged from critical resources immanent to the situation, resources from anywhere and anyone, which is to say from nowhere and no one in particular” (Sexton, 2016b: 589); this approach to politics would seem to entail a total rejection of transcendence, a politics of pure immanence without the Archimedean point. And in one sense it is, but I am attuned to the difficulties arising from an abandonment of the negative in our enthusiasm for the affirmative, and so I want to think not so much about transcendence viz. immanence as about the various forms or modalities of transcendence and immanence that can be mobilized.
At this point, it is de rigueur to be against the bad transcendence that underwrites such anthropo-euro-phallogocentrism, and I have no quarrel with that ongoing displacement. I find much value in the philosophy of immanence, from Spinoza’s substance monism to Deleuze’s difference in itself. Much of the latter’s work, or rather much of the sustained collaboration with Guattari, was aimed at what has been (mis)read as a sort of tag-team take-down of Marx and Freud in the name of a more anarchic movement of liberation (and they weren’t alone on the Left in the second half of the twentieth century, neither in Europe nor around the world). The D&G trilogy—Anti-Oedipus (1983), Thousand Plateaus (1987), What is Philosophy (1996)—for all of its polemical thrust, reads less like an attempt to liberate radical politics from Marxism and psychoanalysis wholesale than to liberate Marxism and psychoanalysis—their conceptual tool kits—from themselves, to make them more available to radical thought and action.
Unfortunately, too many have misunderstood the resultant politics of desire they championed as a politics of affirming whatever we want however we want it. As if Marxism were simply about losing the chains of oppression and psychoanalysis were simply about lifting repression and making the unconscious conscious. It’s romantic and reassuring to say people—whether “the people” or “we, the people”—know how to live their lives well enough so long as they are not bothered by the state or exploited by capital or inhibited by bad conscience and so on. (If that ever was the case, it surely stopped being so after the conjoint emergence of these phenomena.) I’m not saying this is where the embrace of a philosophy of immanence inevitably leads, only that this is how it is often translated into a social-political-intellectual praxis. In a way, there’s not so much distance—or true difference—between the idea of a purely transcendent self, an “I” or a “we,” that can be recovered or reclaimed no matter the conditions and the idea of a purely immanent “self” that can be fashioned anew no matter the conditions.
So, what I’m saying is the problem of bad transcendence wasn’t really resolved by the formulation of immanence, and not a few of the troubles we sought to escape have been retained, if reframed or renamed, in the process. You can see some of this in the ongoing critical engagement with Fanon. There is an unreconstructed humanist reading of Fanon’s notion of disalienation that sees it as the return of the human being, and so of humanity, to its proper form and function, freed of the artificiality and abnormality imposed upon them by the slavery and colonialism and capitalism of western modernity. And Fanon is, of course, steeped in the mid-century debates over humanism, especially as they unfold in the francophone context, so it’s easy to be lead astray and miss his more profound suggestions. Introducing invention into existence, for Fanon, is not about unleashing our potential and fostering our creativity. This is no expressive model of political transformation. Fanon’s oeuvre is, in my view, an exploration of the ways that the powers that be are not only upon us but also, more importantly, within us. Not because the external battle is easy; no, it is nearly impossible. It is just that the internal battle is even harder; it is actually impossible and no less necessary for that.
So the powers that be are within us not in the sense that they are internalized and thus need to be externalized like you eliminate impurities—there are no purities or impurities—but rather in the sense that they constitute us, and so any move against them is a move against ourselves. How do you move against yourself? It is like trying to relax. Few really grasp how deeply frustrating this insight is for our common purview on change across spatiotemporal scales. That is why Fanon says that he wants to liberate the black man from himself, not repair his self-esteem or correct his misguided worldview or reacquaint him with some traditional way of life—not to heal him, but to liberate him. And liberation does not mean (only) to return the fruits of his formerly exploited labor or (only) to return the sovereignty of his people over their formerly colonized land or (only) to return control over the uses of his formerly enslaved body. Those are the external conditions, as it were. He must (also) be liberated from himself, from his self, from his desiring self. Moreover, when he says “truly what is to be done is to set man free” he is talking about a liberation from all of those selves—white, black, Arab, Jew, etc.—“rooted at the core of a universe” described in the parlance of the time as “color prejudice” (Fanon, 2008a: 2, 89), and that today I would call anti-blackness.
And there is no help for us in any of this. We are alone with it, even when all together. Fanon’s leap, a kind of atheistic appropriation of Kierkegaard, is not a leap based in or upon a prior secular faith—in the cause, the revolution, the people—but a leap into faith that takes the form of an “infinite resignation” (Kangas, 2007) or, as he puts it himself, “a descent into a real hell,” “a zone of non-being, an extraordinarily sterile and arid region, an utterly naked declivity” (Fanon, 2008a: 2). There is nothing to hold onto, no foothold, no supports, and no sustenance. It is the loss of everything that is comforting or meaningful. This is a process in which one finds oneself “[uprooted], pursued, baffled, doomed to watch the dissolution of the truths that he has worked out for himself one after another.” In another context, this might be how Fanon describes the deracination, the loss of metaphysics, characteristic of the slavery of history, i.e., modern racial slavery. In that sense, the structure of racial slavery as historical formation amplifies or recapitulates an existential precept, or vice versa. If the abolition of this slavery requires a political struggle, then it no less requires a psychic struggle as well. Not, however, the psychic struggle to become politically active, or rather, in Fanon’s words, to become “actional,” but the psychic struggle against the tendency of political reductionism, the tendency to think one’s suffering is from the world alone. For Fanon, in the same line, the black man “has to give up projecting onto the world an antinomy that coexists with him.” An antinomic existence, a psycho-political struggle, beyond transcendence, beyond “a possibility of self-consciousness or of negation,” beyond freedom even, toward the ex nihilo capacity for affirmation—“a ‘yes’ resonating from cosmic harmonies” (Fanon, 2008a: xxi).
This is not about a return to one’s literal or figurative native land—mother, motherland, mother earth—except to learn how to lose that grounding, to see it dissolve or vanish, and eventually to let it go and to rejoice in that separation. Why? Because separation, as psychoanalysis has shown powerfully, is a precondition for any relationship whatsoever. [Neyrat makes this point in his own idiom: “A split juxtaposes two realities without mediation, whereas a separation is that without which a relation becomes a fusion, and fusion is not a relation, fusion is the suppression of separation in absolute immanence.”] We all must lose our mother by way of an arduous process of working-through, but this losing is overwhelmingly difficult for those whose mothers are stolen from them, those who are denied even the occasion and opportunity to let her go, to relate through separation. The problem is then compounded, doubled. Needless to say, this problem is not evaded by the inevitable forging of alternative structures of kinship; in fact, insofar as such flouts a certain normative filiation, it can serve to convolute further the problem of this violent disinheritance and thus to embed it even more thoroughly.
The ex nihilo capacity for affirmation is not about the magic of the unfettered imagination or liberated desire, but is cultivated materially by the painful process of separation and the opening up of the possibility of relation as such. We lose all of the things that are initially precious to us, one after another, until we find ourselves unmoored, as we come to realize we always have been. We relinquish those sources of apparent mental and emotional fecundity, all of the experiential richness that binds us together, all of the truths of our sensuous bodies … we encounter at once the abyss into which we’ve been cast and the void that is at the heart of our existence. Creation ex nihilo here does not mean something from a preexisting nothing, but instead something from a nothing or nothingness that is achieved, however fleetingly. It is creation from a particular type of destruction or deconstruction, a type of annihilation—an affirmative reduction to nothing. It is, as David Marriott (2011) argues in his more recent writing on Fanon, the pursuit of tabula rasa as aspiration, not as assumption.
Neyrat, again, is among those wrestling with this question of a non-transcendent transcendence that builds upon the immanent critique of bad transcendence without falling into the consequent problem of a “saturated immanence” in which everything is inside. His “atopic” notion of an outside that is not external, i.e., transcendent, but nonetheless unassimilated to the immanent field is an attempt to think about negativity without recourse to an external ground. That appeals to me, of course, but only if we begin from a position of those who have no recourse to an external ground in the first place, not because they have arrived (already or again) at a philosophy of immanence, but because they must practically invent everything from scratch (what they call those inventions is another question—the tendency to transcendentalize is powerful, like grasping at straws while drowning, though the straws will not save you). If, as Joseph Albernaz’s (2015) gloss in the Los Angeles Review of Books has it, “groundlessness causes us to be exposed,” opening us up to “the multitude of relations that occur at and as the outside,” then we must be careful to limn the difference between this sort of exposure and the structural vulnerability entailed in the anti-black world. How do the overexposed open up to this enlivening, transformative exposure? And how are the underexposed to relate to them there? How do those whose ground is taken from them, who are taken from their ground, who are taken away from themselves as ground—how do they embrace that groundlessness as possibility when it is likewise marked by the scandal of an unaddressed crime? If I truly have nothing to lose but my chains, then why would I want to lose those and have nothing? If my psyche is assaulted so relentlessly that I cannot form a coherent self, then why would I want to subject that shattered ego to “a complete lysis” (Fanon, 2008a: 3) and risk losing my mind altogether? That’s the challenge.
And this is where the temporality of the interminable would come to the fore. In a forthcoming essay on abolition, I draw from one of Freud’s late works, the 1937 essay “Analysis Terminable and Interminable,” where he is exploring the difficulty of determining the proper end of a psychoanalytic treatment. According to René Péran (2005), writing for the International Dictionary of Psychoanalysis: “A terminated analysis supposes that two conditions are fulfilled: first, the patient must be relieved of symptoms, inhibitions, and anxieties, and second, enough of the repressed must be made conscious and elucidated, and enough of the resistance conquered, so as to banish the risk of repetition.” Historian Greg Grandin (2014) suggests in Empire of Necessity something akin to the repression of slavery in the political culture of the modern world, an epoch-making violence that has, across the centuries, taken on the stalled dynamic of collective trauma. If this much is plausible, then it makes some sense to approach the question of the end(s) of abolition with respect to both the matter of relief and the matter of repetition as well.
I am influenced by Marriott’s thinking on the “occult presence of slavery” (2007: xxi) on this score and I’ve written about that presence with respect to the white pro-natalism of the reproductive reactionaries and the animating fantasy of the fetus-as-slave. In fact, my article “Unbearable Blackness” was first outlined as a conference paper commemorating the sesquicentennial of the US Supreme Court’s Dred Scott (1857) decision, which declared infamously that blacks had no rights that whites were bound to respect. I was interested there to understand how and why the so-called pro-life movement would analogize the decision in Roe v. Wade (1973), that partially legalized abortion, to Dred Scott, and thereby analogize the fetus to the slave, or more specifically to the black, whether enslaved or nominally free. The point, in any case, was to establish that the denial of legal personhood to enslaved blacks, and by extension to all blacks, was morally equivalent to the denial of legal personhood of the fetus. So this right-wing effort associates black life as fetal life and fetal life as black life, where the fetal life is presumptively white and the black life is presumptively person. You can see where this runs ashore straight away, since the first presumption is ironclad while the second is strictly nullified. Presumptive personhood, for better or worse, is what black life is denied by definition.
So what the analogy enables—in this perverse desire to be black in order to defend against the conditions of anti-blackness—is a demand, not to treat fetal life as well as black life is treated before the law, but to protect fetal life from being treated as if it were black life before the law. In sum: don’t treat the (white) fetus as if it were a (black) non-person, unless it is a (black) non-person. This is how we can wind up with the same organizations supporting the re-criminalization of abortion in the name of white pro-natalism and supporting efforts to sterilize black women and other women of color, or to impose conditions that undermine their reproductive freedom more generally, in the name of population control. This is the rhetorical crux of the growing “personhood movement” (Martin, 2014), couching their campaign to undermine a fundamental plank in the larger platform for reproductive justice in the very the language of abolitionism. It is a way of using the discourse (and organizing strategies) of black feminism—insofar as we acknowledge its roots in the fight to resist and abolish slavery and all of its vestiges—against itself—insofar as we acknowledge that black feminism best provides for the reproductive justice for all.
The titular unbearable blackness generated, and anxiously disavowed, within the political imaginary of the so-called pro-life personhood movement is one wherein “the abolition of fetal slavery, as it were, would be secured only by the transcendence of sexual difference altogether,” since the conditions for the reduction of fetus to legal nonperson (which in this argument is synonymous with slave) are the conditions of pregnancy as such. And when we consider that associations are promiscuous and so here enjoin us to consider the post-Dred Scott dream of perpetual racial slavery that soothes every mind distraught about the presence of a nominally free black population, we find that the blackened-not-blackened fetus is stuck—suspended between a blackness whose freedom cannot commence and cannot be withstood, a blackness that cannot be born and cannot be borne. Negativity in this atopic space would be drawn from an outside so nearby as to be the most intimate, drawn away from the interior of our ungrounded genesis, our non-originary origins, a concept without conception. Our extimate negation is affirmation inside out, a negativity of the infinitesimal. Unbearable, interminable, unfathomable: I might call this blackness as persistence, which suspends the differences between life and death, and between life (and death) and non-life. Living things persist, non-living things persist, dead things persist, undead things persist. The slave is the threshold of legal non-personhood, communing among other things, where the damned coexist with this bitter earth, with nonhuman animals, wild and hunted, domesticated and slaughtered, with aspects of the natural landscape like plants and rivers despoiled, and mountains and mineral deposits blown apart and mined out, all the fauna and flora, all of the inorganic matter and the immaterial stuff that is split off from the world of proper human beings and corporations.
DB: You’ve mentioned the question of “a groundless or baseless politics” that, while “seem[ing] to entail a total rejection of transcendence,” is simultaneously “attuned to the difficulties arising from an abandonment of the negative.” This formulation appears to touch on an essential problematic offered by the position of the unthought—that is, by “those whose transcendence is foreclosed in and for the modern world” (Sexton, 2016a). To presume recourse to transcendence is to disavow such foreclosure; yet to abandon the negative is to accept the terms of the world that produces such foreclosure.
The foreclosure of transcendence is both “in and for” the modern world. I understand this to mean that such foreclosure is not only something that takes place within the world; it is also that by which the world itself takes place, the means by which the world claims or makes itself. This is to say that the position of the unthought is affected by the total configuration of the world, or by every term of this configuration. One of the many questions I think I hear in what you’ve said concerns the manner of response to this being affected, particularly in so far as the world aggressively converts itself into being by making such affectability the occasion for (the ceaseless accumulation of) violation.
However, I sense that my putting it this way—in terms of response—already undermines (at least part of) what is opened up for questioning with your invocation of a “psychic struggle against … the tendency to think one’s suffering is from the world alone.” If the position of the unthought is affected by every term of that configuration known as the world, then what follows from this might be a focus on the ways in which a response is able, in turn, to affect the world at every one of these terms. Yet what is at stake in the psychic struggle that you observe seems to involve not so much a response to the world as a turning away from the world: a refusal to address such being affected (only) in terms of how or whether it proceeds to affect the world.
The refusal “to think one’s suffering is from the world alone” would be bound to a passivity that exceeds the terms of the world by taking affect upon or into itself—though always “begin[ning] from a position of those who have no recourse to an external ground in the first place.” I wonder if this exceeding, or the blackened and blackening power thereof, is one way of expressing the stakes of what you have called “persistence”?
In any case, it seems clear that the generalized reception and recapitulation of the thought of Deleuze and Guattari has pursued lines that flee any encounter with such passivity. Against such flight, one could very well imagine that the matter of immanence is the matter of flesh—of that which, affectable before the world, demands the uprooting or undoing, the deracination or passivization, of the world. Yet the affirmationist account of immanence makes affect into material for the generation (and ceaseless accumulation) of coalitional possibilities—that is, of “the experiential richness that binds us together, all of the truths of our sensuous bodies.” The fact that all this betrays the most antagonistic forces at issue within a philosophy of immanence is something you already observed at the commencement of Amalgamation Schemes. There you cite—following Fanon’s critical observation of “a psychological phenomenon that consists in the belief that the world will open to the extent to which frontiers are broken”—Guattari’s remark: “It’s never enough to shout long live the multiple” (Sexton, 2008: 1).
Affirmationist immanence poses itself in opposition to the (transcendent) restriction of life, but the life it wants to liberate from the transcendent is already transcendent; the life one is supposed to (immanently) affirm is already established through and as the presumption that such life transcends non-life. The affirmationist account of immanence thus depends on a transcendent structure. It disavows this dependence by attributing transcendence to purportedly epiphenomenal structures of the psyche or political economy, thereby ignoring the fact that “the powers that be are within us … in the sense that they constitute us and so any move against them is a move against ourselves.”
Might immanence be articulated not as a self-subsistent field, an already established realm that breaks through frontiers imposed by the transcendent, but rather—negatively—as an antagonistically downward movement? Perhaps there is no immanence other than that of creation—the introduction of “invention into existence”—and passivity. Deleuze and Guattari remark that immanence is without any dative, that immanence is not immanent to any additional term—including, I would add, the term of life (Deleuze and Guattari, 1996: 44-45). Without term (and its provision of bearings or a base), immanence would be intrinsically vertiginous, such that its only proper vocation is to accede to what is improper to all terms, and such that there is nothing to affirm but what is without term.
JS: I’ll start with your last, wonderfully phrased statement: “Without term (and its provision of bearings or a base), immanence would be intrinsically vertiginous, such that its only proper vocation is to accede to what is improper to all terms, and such that there is nothing to affirm but what is without term.”
I would follow, I would say, yes. There is nothing to affirm. But what is without term? What is improper to all terms is without term. What is without term is improper to all terms. And always there are, nonetheless, terms; terms that seem to name what is improper, that seem to name what is without term, and they surface and disseminate within the discourse of any radicalism whatsoever with the hope of destroying it and the promise of salvaging it. They are limit-terms, scandal-terms, refusal-terms, but also terms of (disavowed) engagement and solicitation, terms of the most fully ambivalent demand for leadership and example, whether vanguardism excites or disgusts. Ambivalent because they want, paradoxically, to hold onto themselves, which is to say preserve their impropriety. Who knows what to do with their damnation? Rise above it, wallow in it, or pay it no mind: all transcendent sense making, all so many attempts to take control.
I was recently privileged to serve as a respondent to a panel on “blackness and speculation,” along with my colleagues Zakiyyah Jackson, Tavia Nyong’o and Christina Sharpe. And I was struck there by the ways that each of their presentations had something very profound to say about the relation between the speculative, the specular and the spectacular in the formations of blackness and anti-blackness. Speculative: not only about possible futures, but also possible pasts and presents. Specular: not only as a question of self-reflection, as in a mirror, but also reflection more broadly, of images and ideals originating or emerging from a range of sources. Spectacular: not only as a matter of the dramatic and the visually engrossing, but also the arresting, the striking, the breathtaking. One way to put it might be that speculative problems regarding specularity provoke and enable spectacular labor (read: problems in theorizing a seemingly impossible black appearance lend themselves to spectacular scenes of subjection).
Professor Jackson described, with reference to historian Evelynn Hammonds’s landmark 1994 essay “Black (W)holes and the Geometry of Black Female Sexuality,” a predicament within black feminist theorizing as it reckons with the necessary challenge of accounting representationally for the “nonrepresentability in discourse” of black female sex/uality, for a mater that grounds and confounds the very conceptualization of matter and mattering as such. Professor Nyong’o mentioned, with reference to interdisciplinary artist Geo Wyeth’s 2014 video “Quartered,” “the blackness of non-representation that brings the representational economy to a momentary halt” en route to the discussion of a critical strategy among black queer and transgender artists of a sort of visual oscillation between presence and absence, suggesting a necessary black counter-surveillance and, I might add, a certain counter-intelligence and counter-intuition at work. Professor Sharpe then spoke, with reference to the spatiotemporal afterlife of the millions of enslaved Africans lost to the ocean during the Middle Passage, of “ways to make Black life visible, if only momentarily through the optic of the door [of no return],” that is to say through an aesthetics and a politics of disappearance inaugurated by racial slavery and that foregrounds inference—and interference—of all sorts. An inference is an immanent reference that cannot get outside itself except perhaps to go deeper within, perhaps infinitely so—tracking singularity from the cosmic to the quantum, not in a way that is theoretically unified but rather linked through a dark luminosity.
So, we are confronted with a problem that is resolved by neither visibility nor invisibility, by neither sound nor silence, by neither enlarging nor shrinking the scale, neither broadening nor narrowing the frame; but that seems to be addressed most pointedly and most poignantly as a form of appearance that annuls itself, a self-cancelling utterance, an involution of scale, a torquing of the frame, all perhaps as a means of exercising some influence over what cannot be controlled. It reminds me of that powerful line from Rita Dove’s 1989 poem, “Canary,” about the great Billie Holiday: “If you can’t be free, be a mystery.” Farah Jasmine Griffin adapted that line as the title of her well-known text on Holiday several years later and she wrote in that book-length study something of immediate relevance: “Choosing to be a mystery is the one way to maintain a semblance of control, to keep your inner self to yourself. This is an act of agency for the unfree. Mystery is the thing we do not know, cannot solve” (Griffin, 2001: 157). And if we, ourselves, are that unfree thing that we do not know and cannot solve, if we are most powerfully that inhuman element of dispossession that upsets and unleashes every humanism and anti-humanism alike, what then?
Agency for the unfree, like medicine for melancholy before the blue moonlight. But underscore the word “semblance” here and the statement becomes an even more difficult prescription than on first approach. Semblance of control could mean the appearance of control where there isn’t any or at least less than there appears to be, perhaps only an indeterminate influence; but it could also mean the semblance of control, the stand-in or the double who does the controlling thing while the inner self, the real me, as it were, does not. If you can’t be free is a monumentally misleading conditional. You cannot be free, no one can, you can only fight for freedom, pursue the struggle. You cannot be free, so you pursue it. You cannot be free, so you must pursue it, but how?
Being a mystery is not the same as being mysterious (to others), keeping your inner self to yourself. Being a mystery involves being a mystery to oneself as well as to others, wherein one’s inner self appears as foreign and strange, or ephemeral, appearing only momentarily, only to disappear again into non-representation or non-representability, bringing the representational economy to a halt and impelling it forward again. Being a mystery involves (acknowledging we are always) losing control, in one sense, in order to gain some direction or directive in another. It involves, then, establishing a rapport with the uncanny, the unconscious, the unimaginable, which is also to say the inescapable and the ungraspable. If we cannot ultimately be held in another’s grasp, then it is for the same reason we cannot ultimately be held in another’s embrace, or our own. We cannot be free in the same way that we cannot be fixed. Sometimes broken, but always, at least and at last, we are unfixed. This is the agential paradox that arises when our efforts structurally undermine or inhibit our stated intentions, the paradox of willing the disappearance of our will.
This is where critiques of dispossession—and a whole series of terms from the lexicon of social death, like dishonor and natal alienation—miss the point fundamentally. You do not need to be self-possessed, or reactively desire self-possession, to be dispossessed. You can recognize a certain ontological non-possession of the self at the same time that you recognize—and remark critically upon—the political ontological dispossession of (the claim to) the self that organizes a social order and structures its libidinal dynamics. Just as one can object to the intent and implications of, say, (anti-black) animalization without contributing to the denigration of animals and animality or making recourse to the valorization of humanity-over-animality or even a radical humanism that continues to think of animals instrumentally and fails to address what Dinesh Wadiwel (2015) calls “the war against animals”; or object to the intent and implications of (anti-black) emasculation without contributing to the denigration of the female, the femme and femininity or making recourse to the valorization of hetero-patriarchy and questing after dominant forms of masculinity. You can, in other words, reject and undermine the forces of exclusion from dominant institutions and identities even though you are uninterested in and/or actively opposed to being included in them, in the first or last instance. I’m not saying anything new here, of course, but it is a point that gets lost with regularity, especially in the rush of activism and organizing.
I suspect that this is hard for many to see because, among other things, they are working from a (witting or unwitting) affection for transcendence, including those notions of transcendence that you rightly note can accommodate a theory and practice of affirmationist immanence. And moralism follows quickly. Which returns us to your question about the negative articulation of immanence—what a great oxymoron—“as an antagonistically downward movement” that entails creation and passivity. A small point, but I would flip the order of the terms, I think, because passivity is the more fundamental for me. It is the necessary condition of creation, or to cite Fanon once more, of the introduction of invention into existence. And, though I often enough use the words as synonyms, I like invention better than creation, despite what might be read as selecting the name of a traditionally masculine enterprise over a traditionally feminine endeavor (in fact, both notions have been appropriated as quintessentially masculinist and the province of certain classes of men). Eschewing some of the theological restrictions of creation—with all the connotations of causing to be, bringing into existence, designing, and so on—I am drawn to invention because it suggests, in its etymology anyway, an encounter, wherein activity and passivity are confused by definition: from the Latin venire—to approach, to arrive, to meet. An encounter is something that happens to you as much as something you pursue or bring about in some way. It leaves unresolved the question of origins and so holds open the question of any possible future as well.
Further still, it is linked to the idea of the wind—ventus—to what blows in with the wind and to the winds of change, but also with the wind itself. Is the wind an active force or passive air moved by active forces? This is where we might say something about the intrinsically vertiginous immanence of what is without term. Wilderson (2011), in his article “Vengeance of Vertigo,” has given us the task of thinking together an objective and subjective vertigo characteristic of the anti-black world, what I take to be not only the contingent loss of bearings (subjective vertigo) but also, at the same time, the structural loss of any context for gaining bearings at all (objective vertigo). This is something more radical than being adrift, lost in the oceanic feeling. There is, after all, even at night, the contrast between one’s body and the water and air, the sea and the sky. That condition—without landmarks—might describe situational disorientation. The more complete disorientation of an objective vertigo can not rely upon even those elementary distinctions of solid, liquid, and gas; and instead involves the amassing or condensation of centers of gravity within a general field, a void, providing no prior points of orientation, a scale and register of passive activity, and eventually action, that one might describe as astrophysical. Centers are not bases or foundations; they are ways for thinking in generalized disorder, decisions without criteria, means without ends.
There is an analogy between this distinction of subjective/objective vertigo in Wilderson’s writing and the earlier distinction of conflict/antagonism in Red, White, and Black, the theoretical text that helps to announce afro-pessimism as an ensemble of questions without, as so many have presumed or projected, laying out a school of thought, much less an orthodoxy or set of prescriptions, quite to the contrary. What these terms, and others besides them in a series including experience/ontology, suggest is a sustained effort to work out something like a difference of quality and not only quantity, a difference of substance and not only attribute; to adumbrate an argument for thinking about what is thought before (the inherited critical) thinking commences, about a violence underlying other forms of violence and that can only be (theoretically) indicated but not (empirically) demonstrated. An argument that anti-blackness is not simply anti-black racism, or even a combination or intersection of that racism and other forms of domination, that it is not another species of oppression, not just distinct and horizontally related to the whole array of mass suffering; but rather that it operates according to another sort of genetic or generative relation to the form and content of our political struggles as such.
The cardinal problem facing an ethics drawn from this vertiginous, antagonistic, downward movement is the likely unavoidable convolution of at least two differing aspects of vulnerability, one ontological and one political: affectability and violability. We have to carefully distinguish them, even as they remain entangled. In discussions of afro-pessimism to date, the focus all around has been almost exclusively on the latter, on who and how and when and whether to mention and mediate the violability produced by racial slavery and its afterlife, especially as this violability is or is not, foremost, gender-specific, but also specific to region, historical period, de jure legal standing, de facto legal status, class location and so forth. I think that the necessary and understandable consternation that these discussions involve, the patterned anxiety they tend to generate, the almost compulsively inhibited speech they display (and I think the felt need to use certain keywords, despite the diminishing returns of their explanatory power, is often part of a more general inhibition, rather than a prohibition, at work—even when it might feel like it, I don’t think this is some type of language policing, which would be much easier to sort out in any case) all suggests that we are circling around a taboo.
And I mean this in a strict sense, not the casual sense in which we talk about something emotionally charged or unseemly or even something we would describe as traumatic. I mean taboo in the sense of something that we recoil from for reasons that are as obscure as the conviction is strong. Something whose approach threatens us with an incomprehensible inexperience of disintegration; not just a sense of ethical dilemma, not just a crisis of knowledge, not just feelings of pain and suffering, but also a total failure of sense perception as such; not just a sense that I don’t know who I am or what to do or where I come from, but whether I am, or anything is, at all or ever has been. The taboo touches upon the foreclosure that makes possible a more or less successful defense against that loss of the possibility for loss (or gain). Affectability, then, would be the name for the ontological condition of absolute vulnerability that is disclosed—or provoked—by the political data of violability. And because an ethics of affectability always runs the risk of somehow endorsing violation, however tacitly, it gets shunted into a restricted economy of beautiful, loving creation or the creation of beauty and love. We are not just open to wonderful things like beauty and love, however; we are open to terrible things like ugliness and hate too. And the fact that we can’t ultimately tell those things apart—Lacan coined the apt concept of hainamour (or “hate-love”) to that effect—is why it’s impossible to ground ethics in a transcendent principle to which we could abandon final responsibility. We must assume the risk, or as you put it, accede to it.
DB: I wonder, then, what it would mean to think about taboo with regard to, or with the reach and touch of, the flesh. Flesh seems to name the indiscernibility of affectability and violability—or, perhaps better put, to undo those criteria by which one seeks to discern, to fix, an imporous boundary between them. Would hainamour thus come down to a matter of flesh?
Your characterization of taboo, as “Something whose approach threatens us with an incomprehensible inexperience of disintegration,” brings to mind the question of mysticism (an imprecise term, and so one I use as a kind of placeholder). Like taboo, mysticism concerns the incomprehensible and the disintegrative, though more as promise than as threat.
Mysticism is etymologically intertwined with mystery, and so the question of mysticism arises from your commentary on Holiday, Dove, and Griffin. This question also seems to arise from your mention of “a form of appearance that annuls itself, a self-cancelling utterance”—or “the paradox of willing the disappearance of our will”—and your discussion of how “we encounter at once the abyss into which we’ve been cast and the void that is at the heart of our existence.”
This is not to say that being a mystery is an instance of some more general, perennial phenomenon called mysticism. Being a mystery is not a matter of participating in a history of mysticism, nor is it something that could be understood in relation to an eternity that is divided from or transcendent to determinations categorized as historical. It is rather that being a mystery involves a mode of expression that seems to overlap with, yet cannot be reduced to, the structure of what is generally understood as mysticism.
In its inherited sense, mysticism entails encounter with darkness, even blackness, yet it keeps distance from a blackness that is always already epidermalized. This is to say that mysticism tends to be a matter of subjective (but not objective) vertigo: by being defined from the outset—ahead of time, and the potential interminability thereof—in terms of the divine or simply the universe, mysticism connotes a blackening that still maintains relation to points of orientation (even as the terms enabling such orientation may come to be revealed as nothing). In this sense, to propose a straightforward relation between mysticism and blackness—the latter of which precedes and exceeds terms of orientation—is to propose yet another ruse of analogy. Or, putting it otherwise, and looping back to your characterization of taboo, it may be that mysticism concerns an experience—but not an “inexperience”—of disintegration.
Given all this, and refusing anything like the aforementioned “relation” between mysticism and blackness, I wonder if there might be a black study of mysticism, which is perhaps already present in being a mystery. At issue, then, would be an absolute vulnerability—not, however, as something proper to mysticism, but rather as that which is never not epidermalized, never not specified (whether in the first or last instance) by “the absolute vulnerability that structures ‘existence in black’ (Gordon, 2000)” (Sexton, 2008: 257).
Such study has already been advanced by Fred Moten’s articulation of a “mysticism in the flesh” (Moten, 2013: 753). Notably, one of the ways that a (more or less Christianizing) discourse of mysticism has evaded an encounter marked by passivity, and thus by the concomitant windings of invention, is through the presumption of a mystical body—and the body is not flesh. It is as if mysticism, despite its uprooting of the given world, its deracinating tendency, remains fixed on a body that is derived from history (which narrates itself away from encounter with the political data of violability) and oriented by eternity (which forecloses the interminable ontological openness of affectability).
JS: Well, I would mark a distinction between hainamour and flesh while maintaining their interrelation. Whereas hainamour says something very powerful about how we cannot but get lost in what we think and feel—“love is fraught with hatred,” as the British psychoanalyst Adam Phillips put it in his book Equals (2002: xi)—flesh names the fundamental contact, connection, and continuity in what we are or, rather, in what exists. There may be no such thing as flesh, but it exists nonetheless. “Do a psychoanalysis of Nature: it is the flesh, the mother,” writes Merleau-Ponty in The Visible and the Invisible (1968), as a note penned several months before his sudden death. But for him the flesh, as he evokes it here, enigmatically, is not primordial any more than the mother, in the sense of something ancient, a “myth of the original indivision and coincidence” that returns again and again. “It is,” instead, “a question of finding in the present, the flesh of the world (and not in the past) an ‘ever new’ and ‘always the same’” (267).
Alexander Weheliye’s Habeas Viscus (2014) draws together in outline the formulations of flesh in Merleau-Ponty and in Spillers, though not on this particular point and I think we could usefully expand in that direction. Spillers wraps up her most famous essay by suggesting, again enigmatically, that “the black American male embodies the only American community of males handed the specific occasion to learn who the female is within itself, the infant child who bears life against the could-be fateful gamble, against the odds of pulverization and murder, including her own.” And she issues further this ought imperative: “It is the heritage of the mother that the African-American male must regain as an aspect of his own personhood—the power of ‘yes’ to the ‘female’ within” (228). I think we can plausibly read this “heritage of the mother” as something akin to Merleau-Ponty’s sensible-intelligible paradox of the “ever new” and “always the same.” This is not the mother whose difference is (only) repressed or disavowed, but whose connection is (also) foreclosed by the force of law. This possibility of a universal “yes” to the “female” within, across sexual difference and the range of gender expression, is enabled by the unimaginable violence of enslavement and its production of ungendering (as one loss of or liberation from distinction and degree among others), and it poses the question of a different understanding of gender (and other forms of distinction and degree) altogether; less the perennial challenge of an ethics of gender difference than the prior problematic of gender differentiation—and, moreover, of sexuation and separation—as such.
What strikes me in this fragment from Merleau-Ponty and this passage from Spillers is that the former associates the flesh with a “sort of time of sleep” (267), that everyday state about which we know the least but cannot escape on pain of death, disease, or despair; and the latter links the female to “the infant child,” that life stage about which we know the least but cannot escape on pain of death, disease, or despair. We live in the permanent aftermath of these things. These are states of dis-possession or pre-possession in which we have little or no control of our selves (in fact, selves are hardly formed therein), but our imaginations are most clearly active and such imaginative dynamics persist, unconsciously, throughout the waking state or the stages of adulthood. If the apocryphal joke Freud made about the Irish was that they were they only people in the world that could not be psychoanalyzed, then perhaps it is that black people are the analysands par excellence, the only people for whom the men can be analyzed as well as the women, the children as well as the adults, and so on. Except that the requisite techniques have yet to be fully developed. The central complexes regarding incest, Oedipus, castration, etc. would all need to be rethought in a way that addresses what happens when the guiding terms and concepts are operative under erasure. It may be that psychoanalysis will become—yet, again—a black art and science to the extent that we can re-imagine it as formed in a reckoning with the slave’s predicament, as Claudia Tate (1998), Sheldon George (2016), Nathan Gorelick (2013), and Justin Clemens (2013) all suggest in their own ways.
And I think there is some link between this (other) analytic experience and the question of mysticism you raised. All of the ways I’ve tried to indicate this above—variations of a kind of self-cancelling—are attempts to show that analytic experience is a species, even a privileged one, of the genus of the secular experience of structure and not just knowledge about it. I say to my students, in illustration of this point, that we know we’re mortal, but we can never experience it directly; in fact, we rarely experience even the knowledge of it and when we do we can really only do so momentarily or episodically (even if those moments are sometimes months or years of agony). We know, moreover, that the earth is rotating at 1,000 mph while it orbits around the Sun at 70,000 mph while the Sun orbits around the galaxy at 450,000 mph and so forth; but we are protected by inertia in a frictionless void from experiencing even a fraction of these massive velocities or we’d lose not only our balance but likely our minds as well. Carol Mavor, in Blue Mythologies, recalls an apposite line from Marie Darrieussecq’s novel Breathing Underwater: “astronauts are trained not to go insane when they see the Earth, round and blue, smaller than their porthole” (Mavor, 2013: 15-16). That’s kind of what analysis enables, a sensibility attuned to the background existence of those crushing, mind-blowing, life-giving forces, which is to say this is kind of what saying “yes” to the “female” within might enable too—the black female, the black infant, born and bearing life against the odds of pulverization.
So, unlike those aspects of the Christian tradition oriented by a transcendent body, a mysticism of the flesh (of the earth) might be one in which our ruthless and relentless engagement with history—from the deep time of geological formation and biological evolution to the longue durée of social structures and world systems to the present urgency of crisis and conjuncture—pushes us toward the nothing from which we all emerge and to which some remain connected, through the nonlinear dynamics of the spatiotemporal topology, toward an understanding, or at least an appreciation, of the pivotal differences between the all and everything, between the eternal and forever.
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