Runnin’, Runnin’ Runnin’ but Never Runnin’ Away: Latour, Fanon and the Impossibility of a Natural Black Escape

     I.

            The autobiographical never emerges within an isolated frame of reference. The autobiographical emerges within the sociopolitical contours of the World writ-large. Our stories are never “our stories” in a way that strips the biographical away from the sociological, but instead “our stories” are always radically “ours.” In other words, our stories are always stories of relationality (or of the inability to make relations), stories of sociality (or the production of a ruptured sociality), and stories of paradigms (or the socio-political spatiotemporal structures that we inhabit). Sadiya Hartman writes, “The autobiographical example is not a personal story that folds onto itself; it’s not about navel gazing, it’s really about trying to look at historical and social process and one’s own formation as a window onto social and historical processes, as an example of them.”[1] The autobiographical is a case study of the self – a self that is always embedded in a network of social and historical processes.

What follows is an example of such a case study. Frantz Fanon, in his work entitled The Wretched of the Earth, speaks to a “world divided into compartments,” a world where, “economic reality, inequality, and the immense difference of ways of life never come to mask the human realities.”[2] This world is the modern world, the world of the colonizers, the world of anti-blackness. It is in this world that multiple methods of emancipation have been attempted, only to fold onto itself and recycle the practices of subjugation. My story is a biographical account of running, running, running, but never running away. In this story, I speak to the compartmentalized political culture of the modern world which exudes anti-blackness in every direction through a story of an anti-black encounter from my youth, and the hope of escape through running to the natural. However, by conjoining this narrative with the work of Bruno Latour in We Were Never Modern, I look back on that story as a means to articulate why an escape into the natural is a (non)escape. For if the nature/culture divide of modernity is nonexistent, then the notion of escape into nature away from the culture of anti-blackness is nonexistent as well. Fugitivity, or the practice of running as a method of resistance, does not provide any possible transcendence. In other words, we can run from anti-blackness, but we can’t hide.

II.

            What young love does is confirm the self. Friendship is one thing; love is another. To be in love while young is to take the intimate affirmation of friendship and to multiply the sensation. Not only do they like who I am, they like all the hidden parts of me too. They like what I’m afraid to share with everyone else. They know my secrets and they keep them locked somewhere in this thing called, “love.” It is this feeling adults forget when they tell their children, “You’re too young to be in love. You don’t really know what love is.” The adults forget how they were once able to be loved by someone who did not quite know themselves yet; the adults forget how they once were love someone who did not quite know themselves yet. But, the children know and the children never forget – the children know love better than the rest of us.

I fell in love for the first time in 8th grade. We met in middle school in the rural outskirts of a town called North East, Maryland. With a population of 3,715, everyone in the town lived closely; and with a demographic percentage of 85.5% white people and 7.2% black people, everyone in the town lived separately.[3] It was a town that seemed stuck in what many people would like to consider the American past. But it was a town that reminded one of why Anthony Farley is correct in saying, “memories of progress up from slavery are screen memories.  We remember slavery-to-segregation-to-neosegregation as progress up from slavery but there is no progress.”[4] In previous writings I have discussed the lived experience of growing up in rural white America writing:

Our lived experience of racial terror is not only conceptual. It is alive and pervasive. It’s an explicit and pervasive racism that sits right next to you in Biology class. It’s an explicit and pervasive racism that doesn’t wish to play in your hair, but pulls it, demeans it, disgraces it. It’s a racism that calls you, “Nigger,” belittles you into silence, demeans you into suicide. It’s a post-racial racism that imitates the racism of old. It is overt and actual, yet somehow still learns to benefit and hide behind the post-racial laws of integration, tokenized tales of black success, and the optimistic masquerade of the Obama era.[5]

Yet somehow in the midst of the madness of rural white America, I had fell in love with a white girl. She was young, fiery and white. I was young, poetic and black. We had found each other in the mayhem of the Manichean World, still characterized by what Sadiya Hartman called, “the afterlife of slavery.”[6] And we weren’t ignorant to the violence of the anti-black world around us, we just believed that, as I wrote in a song called, “The Story of Determination” in 8th grade, “[W]alkin’ in this life wit so much hatin / it’s so dangerous” and that perhaps our love could, “just transform ya eyes” to see that, “I’m sick of all this pain here / but we don’t have to fight / we are one that’s what we saying.”  To be one, however, with whiteness in an anti-black world, and to identify the securitization of that oneness through a relationality of affect and intimacy between a black boy and a white girl is to fall into the neurosis Frantz Fanon calls, “a hallucinatory whitening.” Frantz Fanon, writing about interracial relationality and the false oneness that it creates states, “Out of the blackest part of my soul, through the zone of hachures, surges up this desire to be suddenly white. I want to be recognized not as Black, but as White. But – and this is the form of recognition that Hegel never described – who better than the white women to bring this about? By loving me, she proves to me that I am worthy of white love. I am loved like a white man. I am a white man. Her love opens the illustrious path that leads to total fulfillment…”[7] I had found a way into a world that was not made for me.

No one could have told me at the time that we were not going to spend the rest of our lives together. I was convinced that our love was a love that cut across the boundaries of the Manichean world and opened up a space for a rupture in this compartmentalized world. However, what I didn’t know in 8th grade was what Jean Veneuse, the protagonist in a novel written by Rene Maran, did know prior to falling in love with Andree Marielle, a white French woman. Fanon, writing about the novel, states, “Andree Marielle has written to him that she loves him, but Jean Veneuse needs authorization. He needs a white man to say: take my sister.”[8] And whereas Jean Veneuse receives that authorization and still lapses into abandonment neurosis – so incapable of coming to terms with the blackness of his body that the legitimation of his white peers who grant him access to oneness with whiteness could not dismay him – I had not. Whereas Jean Veneuse was told, “In fact, you are like us, you are “us.” You think like us. You act like us. You think yourself black and others think of you as such? Big mistake! You only look like a black. For everything else, you think like a European. That’s why it’s only normal for you to love like a European,”[9] I was told, “You are not like us. You are not us. You don’t think like us. You don’t act like us. You are black, and for that reason, you cannot and you shall not continue to date my daughter.”

If the words of her father were not enough to break through the illusionary whitening, then the will of the network of institutionalized anti-blackness was. The father of my lover did not only say we could not be together, because of my blackness, he even called the school and told the school that he wished to keep us separate and the school followed his orders. From school administrators to teachers, there became a devoted effort to ensuring our separation. We could not sit together. We could not walk together. We could not be seen with each other. We could not under circumstances be with each other. It was my first encounter with the implementation of a powerful surveillance of my black body. To be or not to be was not the question. The entire world has begun to conspire towards my (non)being, and the will of the anti-black world had been working effectively. In response to this situation, I wrote in the same “Story of Determination’, “Obviously I’m walking in a darker place / I disagree wit folks that see me in a darker way / my allies see smoke / but I just see some harder days.” The will of the Manichean world had to be sustained and any ounce of innocence and purity I thought I could retain had to be devoured in order to sustain it. Young love confirms the self, and I bared a body unworthy of confirmation. Not only was she supposes to despise who I was, she was suppose scatter my secrets to the world to be surveilled. Not only was she supposed to fear me, but she was supposed to collaborate with the rest of the world in policing me. I am black, therefore, I was/am unworthy of white love. For, “The zone where the natives live is not complementary to the zone inhabited by the settlers. The two zones are opposed, but not in the service of a higher unity. Obedient to the rules of pure Aristotelian logic, they both follow the principle of reciprocal exclusivity. No conciliation is possible…”[10]

In response to this violence, I must have thought – even if subconsciously – to follow in the footsteps of my ancestors. I must have thought that running, like my ancestors had done, had some intrinsic liberatory value that had to be tapped whenever the world seemed at its end.  I must have thought that running would bring the pain of heartbreak and anti-blackness to an end. The 8th grade boy wrote in a song called, “Hold Hands and Run, “I said my mind already set to keep you here forever girl // I don’t wanna see you cry // so let’s run into forever girl.” To run into forever was to run into an eternity outside of the world we inhabited. I wanted to sustain the sensation of love, but suspend the intensity of anti-blackness. I wanted the force of the political world to become still; I wanted to find an outside of anti-blackness. At the time, I must have, in my own way, figured that following the footsteps of my ancestors might have opened the door to some emancipation. I must have found inspiration in the narratives of fugitivity. I must have thought of running as more than an act of exercise, but instead an exercise in action. But where does one run when the paradigm that one is entrapped is one that ensures social death, the inability to form relationality, and exteriority? Where does one go when it seems like the sociopolitical world is mapped to recreate and recycle violence? In eighth grade, my answer to these questions was simple: You run into nature. I wrote, “We can go into the mountains / drinkin’ from fountains / slinging shots at animals / and singing to flowers / camp on the beach wit the waterfall showers / we can sail on the atlantic / just stare at each other / leave a letter on our table / tell our family we love them / and never look back.”

Nature provided the safe haven from a political world bent on my destruction. Nature was outside the political. Nature was where the world of anti-blackness could not go. Nature was where blackness could not be pathologized, where blackness could not be expropriated, made into an instrument, devoured, negated, and harmed. Nature was where young love could go to be young love without the historical racial schema. Nature and its inhabitants lived outside of history. Nature was natural, and therefore the unnaturalness of the social construction of blackness had no impact on its configuration. And whereas this idea appeared true on face-value, this idea was symptomatic of the persuasive influence of modernity and the “hallucinatory whitening” that still remain internalized. Bruno Latour hypothesizes in his We Were Never Modern that, “the word ‘modern’ designates two sets of entirely different practices which must remain distinct if they are to remain effective, but have recently begun to be confused. The first set of practices, by ‘translation’, creates mixtures between entirely new types of beings, hybrids of nature and culture. The second, by ‘purification’, creates two entirely distinct ontological zones: that of human beings on the other hand; that of nonhumans on the other.”[11] The latter practice of purification is the practice that establishes a “partition between a natural world that has always been there, a society with predictable and stable interests and stakes, and a discourse that is independent of both reference and society.”[12] In other words, the practice of purification purifies hybridity in order to create a dichotomy of nature and culture. By subscribing to this notion, I subscribed to the script of modernity which did not allow me to see how nature itself is tainted with the history of anti-blackness.

The Atlantic I wrote about running to is not just an oceanic body of water; it is an oceanic body of water still imbued with the nutrient cycles of dead black bodies thrown overboard from slave ships navigated by white slave merchants.[13] The beach, or the eastern sea shore is where the doors of those slave ships would open only for my ancestors to recognize that the door of the ship had opened up to what Dionne Brand has called, “The Door of No Return.”  I thought I ran to nature to find sanctity, however, I did not know of the Latourian analysis that ruptured the nature/culture divide only to give language to the always already hybrid nature of both. Nature is embedded in a cultural matrix of anti-blackness historicity. The trees are stained with reminisces of noosed black necks; the rivers with the corpses of suicided and drowned black bodies; the mountains and trails with marooned and running black fugitives, and the list goes on and on. It is no wonder that in the same song quoted above, in the same verse quoted above, yet later in that verse, I wrote, “Come and get it if you want it / I feel ya and I want ya / I’m yo man / let’s hold hands and go where / there’s nowhere.”  Indeed, nowhere is the only place I could run. If the nature/culture divide is as Latour describes it, then the Manichean World is embedded there, even in nature as well. Anti-blackness does not end where the entrance to the woods begins. But instead the entrance of the woods begins another encounter with anti-blackness. Henceforth when we, “run innocently across vast acres of grass, formerly stained with black blood,” we must remember that, “only fifty years ago, red faces flew Confederate flags next to black bodies hanging from tree branches. And even though we no longer see the black bodies hanging, the Confederate flags still wave as a symbol of a vanguard that will undoubtedly ‘rise again.’”[14] For we can keep we running, running, running, but we can never run away from the fact of anti-blackness.

Works Cited

Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks. Grove press, 2008.

———. The Wretched of the Earth. Grove/Atlantic, Inc., 2007.

Farley, Anthony Paul. “Perfecting Slavery.” Loy. U. Chi. LJ 36 (2004): 225.

Gillespie, John. “Rural Niggers.” Propter Nos 1, no. 1 (2016): 20–22.

Hartman, Saidiya. Lose Your Mother: A Journey along the Atlantic Slave Route. Macmillan, 2008.

Latour, Bruno. We Have Never Been Modern. Harvard University Press, 2012.

“North East, Maryland,” City-Data, accessed April 12, 2017, http://www.city-data.com/city/North-East-Maryland.html

Saunders, Patricia J. “Fugitive Dreams of Diaspora: Conversations with Saidiya Hartman.” Anthurium: A Caribbean Studies Journal 6, no. 1 (2008): 7.

Sharpe, Christina. In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. Duke University Press, 2016.

[1] Patricia J Saunders, “Fugitive Dreams of Diaspora: Conversations with Saidiya Hartman,” Anthurium: A Caribbean Studies Journal 6, no. 1 (2008): 7.

[2] Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (Grove/Atlantic, Inc., 2007), 3–5.

[3] “North East, Maryland,” City-Data, accessed April 12, 2017, http://www.city-data.com/city/North-East-Maryland.html

[4] Anthony Paul Farley, “Perfecting Slavery,” Loy. U. Chi. LJ 36 (2004): 229.

[5] John Gillespie, “Rural Niggers,” Propter Nos 1, no. 1 (2016): 20.

[6] Saidiya Hartman, Lose Your Mother: A Journey along the Atlantic Slave Route (Macmillan, 2008), 6.

[7] Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks (Grove press, 2008), 45.

[8] Ibid, 49.

[9] Ibid, 50.

[10] Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, 4.

[11] Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern (Harvard University Press, 2012), 10.

[12] Ibid, 11

[13] This remark is in reference to statements made in Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (Duke University Press, 2016), 39–40.

[14] Gillespie, “Rural Niggers.”

Black Power as Thing Power: The Limits of Bennet’s Eco-Philosophy

Jane Bennet’s renowned book, “Vibrant Matter” puts the reader in contact and conversation with things. With a Frankensteinian echo, Bennet philosophically invites her reader’s to think through the notion that, “It’s alive.” In other words, Bennet attempts to challenge the normative discussion of philosophical materialist that looks to matter as an inert factor/function of life and seeks to argue for the vitality of the thing. The it is not simply a thing that is moved by persons, but the it reacts, enacts, and interacts with persons. In doing so, Bennet conceives of the idea of Thing-Power. Thing-Power is, “the curious ability of inanimate things to be animate, to act, to produce effects dramatic and sublime.”[1]

In an attempt to mobilize her thoughts, Bennett tells the reader a “speculative onto-story” of five things: a black plastic work glove, a mat of oak pollen, a dead rat, a plastic bottle cap, and a stick of wood. For Bennett, these five things mesh together to perform an assemblage of vital materiality. The assemblage comes together to form a connection of reactants that engage in-the-World with life.  Bennett writes, “When the materiality of the glove, the rat, the pollen, the cap and the stick start to shimmer and spark it was in part because of the contingent tableau that they formed with each other, with the street, with the weather that morning, with me.”[2] This tableau is the assemblage that connects and continues to connect nonhuman things with human persons. To Bennett, these things are not simply scattered across the street; these things are forming relationships, circulating and spreading information and possibilities to each other, with each other, and with Bennett herself. The way they do so is through conatus – a concept crucial to Bennett’s New Materialism. Conatus is the “active impulsion” or trending tendency to persist. This concept, initially articulated by the philosopher Baruch Spinoza, is important for Bennett’s conception of materiality. The work glove, the oak pollen, the dead rat, the plastic bottle cap, and the stick insist on persisting even as they begin to decay, even as they lose significance as human instruments. The power of the thing is the power to persist.

Whereas Bennett’s philosophical intervention is an important critique of old materialist discourse on matter, especially in the age of the Anthropocene, her new materialist philosophy of vital materiality still operates through a problematic that has plagued the “New World” since its inception. As Bennett witnesses this vitality, she is at awe by what she sees. However, what starts as a seeing turns into a gazing as Bennett, quoting Maurice Mearleau-Ponty says, “our gaze, prompted by the experience of our own body, will discover in all other ‘objects’ the miracle of expression.”[3] It is at this point that Bennett begins to raise eyebrows. Our gaze is prompted by the experience of our own body. If this is true, we cannot discuss Bennett’s seeing without an analytics of the white gaze. For Bennett’s white body positions, stations, and situates her seeing. Philosopher George Yancy in his book Black Bodies, White Gazes describes the white gaze as, “that performance of distortional seeing that evolves out of and inextricably linked to various raced and racist myths, white discursive practices, and centripetal processes of white systemic power and white solipsism.”[4] Bennnet’s gaze is not an objective gaze; Bennet’s gaze operates within an empirical lens that optically situates the thing in accordance to “various raced and racist myths, white discursive practices, and centripetal processes of white system power and white solipsism.”

There is no better portrayal of this specific “white discursive practice” than when blackness enters into Bennett’s eco-philosophy. The Black enters Bennett’s conversation only through a disavowal, a disavowal that showcases the full extent of white blindness that structures Bennett’s gaze. More to the point, Bennett’s eco-philosophy while challenging epistemic norms of traditional Western philosophy, sustains the epistemic norm of anti-blackness in traditional Western philosophy through her inability to grapple with the positionality of black life in an anti-Black World. When Bennett writes, “Not Flower Power, or Black Power, or Girl Power, but Thing Power,”[5] she disavows the intimate connection that has always already figured and positioned the Black as Thing. In fact, the notion of Blackness is inconceivable without this Thing-Ness. Blackness as a signifier for a specifically raced-and-marked-body does not exist without the historical-racial schema that positioned the Black as a sentient commodity to be stolen, shipped, processed and enslaved. The auction block is nothing other than the block where nonorganic life is sold as property to a property owner. The hood is nothing other than the space where nonorganic life breathes in industrial pollution, drinks led-contaminated water, sleeps with rabid rodents, lives to be killed “anywhere, anyhow” by and “from anything” for any reason. Until the World of anti-blackness is ended, Blackness will always exist as an “object among other objects.”[6]

Frantz Fanon, psychiatrist and philosopher, moments after encountering the white gaze and remarks from a child who utters, “Look! A Nigger!” muses on the situation and says, “Disoriented, incapable of confronting the Other, the white man, who had no scruples in imprisoning me, I transported myself on that particular day far, very far, from myself and gave myself up as an object.”[7] Here, one might desire to reach out to Fanon, to hold him, to form relation, to assure him that although the “individual” eyes that stare at his black body turn him into an object, he is not “actually an object.” However, this desire itself relies on liberal notions of individuality that treat the structural problem of anti-blackness as a problem of individual persons with “perverse views” versus a systemic issue crystallized into the fabric of the World. The Black body is positioned as thing, not because individual white bodies have calcified it, but because the brutal history of thingification has calcified it. Only an end to the World that made blackness equal to thingness can resolve this equation. Theorist, Fred Moten, reminds us that, “Things are in, but they do not have, a world, a place, but it is precisely both the specificity of having neither world nor place and the generality of not having that we explore at the nexus of openness and confinement, internment and flight.”[8] The homelessness of being a thing is a homelessness shared by the things Bennett discusses and the thing that Frantz Fanon embodies. What Bennett articulates from above as a Human/White/Universal standpoint, Frantz Fanon articulates from below as a Non-Human/Black/Incommunicable standpoint. These irreconcilable standpoints are attempted to be dealt with by New Materialist like Jane Bennet, but their inability to wrestle with Blackness creates scenarios that resurface epistemic violence onto new “things.”

The resurfacing of epistemic violence is at the heart of George Yancy’s white gaze critique. When Yancy describes the white gaze as being characterized by “white solipsism,” he is attempting to speak to a form of empiricism that locks the World into the ways of white modes of being and knowing. White solipsism is a condition of epistemic blindness that forces one to believe that nothing exists beyond white ideals and the immediate white world. The way that Bennett imbues her object with white liberal ideals and mobilizes their voices as voices in conjunction with the system of white liberalism is indicative of the form of white solipsism that Yancy critiques. Bennett cannot see past this World, and cannot accept that Non-Human/Incommunicable standpoints might have a completely different system of being and knowing; or, in Frantz Fanon words, Bennett cannot see, “their metaphysics, or, less pretentiously, their customs and the sources on which they were based.”[9]

This is evident when Bennet discusses the thing-power of Gunpowder Reside in a courtroom. Bennett, telling the story of a time when she was on jury duty, describes the power of the Gunpowder to bring about a conviction of an attempted homicide trial in Baltimore. Calling the Gunpowder Residue from the shooting an “object/witness,” Bennett writes, “The object/witness had been dabbed on the accuser’s hand hours after the shooting and now offered to the jury its microscopic evidence that the hand had either fired a gun or been within three feet of a gun firing. Expert witnesses showed the sampler to the jury several times, and with each appearance it exercised more force, until it became vital to the verdict.”[10] The implication of this statement is that the object/witness, as an actant, in the trial has a vested interest in offering itself up to the jury in order to eventually convict or acquit. Bennett’s solipsism does not engage with the possibility that the “object/witness” may have an entirely different system of interest that does not include cycling more Baltimore city residents into America’s oppressive carceral system. Nor does Bennett seem to have any interest in interrogating the problems that rest in every attempt to impose a white system of values onto the “Other.” Whereas the implications of such an imposition may seem trivial when the “thing” in discussion is simply Gunpowder Residue, the implications are perhaps made clearer when one listens to the narratives shared by those bodies always already positioned as thing. Frantz Fanon writes, “The black man has no ontological resistance in the eyes of the white man. Overnight the Negro has been given two frames of reference within which he has had to place himself. His metaphysics, or, less pretentiously, his customs and the sources on which they were based, were wiped out because they were in conflict with a civilization that he did not know and that imposed itself on him.”[11] The inability of the thing to have “ontological resistance,” or resistance to the modes of being and knowing enforced as the “logical conclusions” of white empirics, is the inability of the Gunpowder Residue to resist being imbued with Bennet’s system of values. The Gunpowder Residue must then split itself in two as an object, in accordance to its own “metaphysics”, and a witness, in accordance to the metaphysics of Bennett. This is a resurfacing of epistemic violence insofar as Bennett denies the epistemic agency of the thing – even if she attempts to grant it “capacity to act.” This capacity to act, however, does not free the thing as much as it locks into new scenes of subjection. Looking at the way Bennett looks at the Thing while imbuing the Thing with Humanist values and juxtaposing this way of seeing with the objectification Frantz Fanon feels as a result of a similar gazing upon his Black body, we can see how Bennett’s inability to look to the historical-racial schema with rigor does not only recycle anti-Black modes of seeing, but recycles anti-Blackness itself.

The Black as the Non-Human/Black/Incommunicable exist at the nexus point of “openness and confinement, internment and flight” and it is from this nexus point that we have to begin to think our questions of thingliness if we want to avoid recycling historical violence. Any analysis of thingness in this anti-Black world that either decentralizes the Black or outright disavows the Black will enable this form of violence. Donna Haraway reminds us that, “It matters which stories tell stories, which concepts think concepts. Mathematically, visually, narratively, it matters which figures figure figures, which systems systematize system.”[12] And the Black, as that which exist liminally as the Non-Human, must be at the forefront of our New Materialist conversations. For, “The history of blackness is a testament to the fact that objects can and do resist”[13] and to think through that, is to think through what Fanon called, “The Fact of Blackness,” and to see the fact of blackness is to see that Black Power, is always already Thing Power and the history of blackness is nothing more than a testament to the fact and a resistance to the results.

[1] Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Duke University Press, 2009), 6.

[2] Ibid, 5

[3] Ibid, 5

[4] George Yancy, Black Bodies, White Gazes: The Continuing Significance of Race (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2008), xviii.

[5] Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, 6.

[6] Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks (Grove press, 2008), 89.

[7] Ibid, 92

[8] Fred Moten, Blackness and Nothingness (Mysticism in the Flesh), South Atlantic Quarterly, vol. 112, 2013, 751, doi:10.1215/00382876-2345261.

[9] Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, 90.

[10] Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, 9.

[11] Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, 90.

[12] Donna J Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Duke University Press, 2016), 101.

[13] Fred Moten, In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition (U of Minnesota Press, 2003), 1.

It’s Not Post-Truth, It’s the Zenith of the Post-Modern Condition

You’ve heard it before. The phrase is so commonplace that you don’t really even need to be an expert to have a sense as to what people are talking about when they utter it. It’s been talked about in books, news articles, the media, and even films. Occasionally, it’s a conversation discussed around the dinner table that can leads to major controversies in the family. And no, I’m not talking about “fake news” yet, or what constitutes “fake news” or the phrase “post-truth,” though they have become a frequent phrase in contemporary discourse. What I’m talking about is Nietzsche’s notorious injunction that, “God is Dead.”

Most people familiar or unfamiliar with the work of Nietzsche have heard this phrase before, and it usually is articulated as means to invite shock. If God is dead, then what does that mean for those of us who believe in God, who rely on God, who need God to navigate through time and space? Usually, this injunction is made into a metaphor for what Nietzsche’s entire philosophical project tends to lean towards, namely the rejection of Truth. For God to be dead is for our metanarratives of Truth to be dead. Truth is no longer thought to be transcendental and eternal, the objective subject position is met with harsh skepticism, and the entire Truth-telling apparatus is met with incredulity. Nietzsche is then thought of as the “Father of Postmodernism” and in his philosophical novel Thus Spake Zarathustra, he often makes references, that he “has come to early.” And perhaps, he had. However, the apostles of his work, the Postmodern philosophers like Jean Francois Lyotard and Jean Baudrillard, who revisited his work as a framework through which to describe the condition of postmodernity reveal that if he had come to early, it was still important for him to come. And, if their postmodern enunciations are seen as a sociological descriptions of the (White) World post-WW2, then what is frequently being called the epoch of Fake News, or the Post-Truth era should be better known as the zenith of the Post-Modern condition.

Critics of Post-Modernism often attack it for what is thought to be its aversion to Truth. The idea is that Post-Modern philosophers are philosophers who are against Truth. However, I want to read against this reading even as I seem to equate their philosophical framework with the “Post-Truth era.” I want to suggest that reading Post-Modern philosophers as against Truth obfuscates the sociological trend in their major exponent’s work; it also disavows the white dread that situates the invocation that “God is Dead.” Baudrillard, whose doctorate is in sociology not philosophy, should be read this way. The important distinction between a sociological reading of the World versus a philosophical reading is that the former is attempting describe the World as it is, the latter is attempting to both describe the World as it is and also how it should be. In other words, philosophy itself tends to imply an advocacy for a World, a Truth; whereas social theory tends to advocate only that that which they see in the World is how the World is. The (White) World is Post-Modern, not because Baudrillard and Lyotard want it to be, or because they advocate for this World, as it would seem to imply if one was to say that they (Baudrillard and Lyotard) are against Truth, but because that’s how the World is now. They are not against anything; they are just describing a World that is against metanarratives of Truth. So in a sense, I would say that they believe that “The Truth is that the World is Against Truth.” This matters, and an analysis as to how we got here matters if we are going to really understand what it means to be in the “Epoch of Fake News.”

Jean Francois Lyotard writes in The Postmodern Condition that, “Simplying to the extreme, I define postmodem as incredulity toward metanarratives. This incredulity is undoubtedly a product of progress in the sciences…” Metanarratives used to proliferate everywhere, and they especially proliferated everywhere prior to what Lyotard and Baudrillard saw as WW2. And whereas the breakdown of these metanarratives to Lyotard and Baudrillard is because of WW2, and scientific and technological progress, Sylvia Wynter reminds us, referencing Wlad Godzich, that “the great sociopolitical upheavals of the late 1950s and ’60s, especially those grouped under the names of decolonization and liberation movements, would have had a major impact on our ways of knowledge.” It is undeniable that something happened in the 1950s and 1960s that challenged Truth, and challenged metanarratives. The (White) World’s disorientation towards this challenge is what fosters the condition of postmodernity. However, injecting the importance of decolonization and liberation movements into how Post-modern philosophers have describe the (White) World allows us to return the notion of the Post-modern, of the “epoch of fake news” with a different view. Baudrillard wrote in Simulation and Simulacra that, “We live in a world where there is more and more information, and less and less meaning.” This can hardly be seen as an emphatic celebration of the death of Truth. Nevertheless, this proliferation of information does in fact exist, and this proliferation of information does in fact challenge metanarratives.

For example, there used to be a time where there was a historical metanarrative that concluded that there was one reading of the historical encounter of Christopher Columbus on the Coast of the Americas. Christopher Columbus “founded” America. However, incredulity to this metanarrative is what fostered the delegitimation of this metanarrative. It’s almost commonplace, even among white conservatives, to at least acknowledge that Christopher Columbus didn’t actually “find” America. Another example, the news and the newspaper used to be the only site at which one learned about what was going on around the (White) World. Any and every media source with the money and funds to dictate to the public how events transpired had control of the metanarratives of contemporary events. However, the internet now provides space for everyone to challenge the media. From think-pieces (thoughtful and unthoughtful) to tweets to Facebook post to the creation and construction of alternative online news tablets to satirical news stations to the creation of Fake News tabloids, the internet is the site of an information explosion that is so crucial to the Post-modern description of the World. Lyotard writes, “The “crisis” of scientific knowledge, signs of which have been accumulating since the end of the nineteenth century, is not born of a chance proliferation of sciences, itself an effect of progress in technology and the expansion of capitalism. It represents, rather, an internal erosion of the legitimacy principle of knowledge. There is an internal erosion at work inside the speculative game, and by loosening the weave of the encyclopedic net in which each science was to find its place, it eventually sets them free.”

But what these juxtaposed examples reminds us of, is the fact that post-modern and post-truth, are not exactly synonymous and that post-truth might not exactly be the best way to describe the current state of the (White) World. Post-Truth implies that there was a moment that the Truth was known, and that we now live in a moment after that. However, a metanarrative is not the Truth; it’s just a narrative that sets itself up as Truth. The Christopher Columbus example proves. It’s not true that Christopher Columbus “founded” America; it’s just the metanarrative we were forced to accept. Post-modernism is about the information bomb of our current moment, and the ways that this information bomb leads not to the lack of Truth per se, but the lack of belief in the metanarratives given to us. Fake News is just a minor part of that information bomb. So when CNN says that “Trump relies on Fake News” and Trump responds that CNN is Fake News, we are presented not with the problem of Truth, but the problem of information. Both Trump and CNN present the World with information as a means to challenge a metanarrative, the metanarrative that both at one point would have been able to represent. For Trump supporters, they see Trump as exhibiting an incredulity towards CNN’s metanarrative; whereas CNN supporters see CNN as exhibiting incredulity towards Trump’s attempt to construct a metanarrative. All this just becomes information for people to choose from. And if it feels like the end of the World, then this is why Baudrillard writes, “INFORMATION = ENTROPY.”

We are at the zenith of Post-modernism. The (White) World is falling apart under the proliferation of information. Look at the Russian Conflict, people are incredulous to the FBI’s own reports, people are trusting unverified reports from Buzzfeed, people are skeptical to their own government’s counterintelligence. This is not Post-Truth. This is Post-Modern. This is Post-Modern at its highest point. William Lane Craig critiqued Post-Modernism and said, “The idea that we live in a postmodern culture is a myth. In fact, a postmodern culture is an impossibility; it would be utterly unliveable.” The question is: Does the World feel unlivable yet?

I end by speaking to the dread that subtends the Post-Modern description of the (White) World. This unliveable World, where information exudes everywhere, where there is, as Lyotard put it, a “crisis in metaphysical philosophy” is a blackening of the World. Frantz Fanon writes, “The black man has no ontological resistance in the eyes of the white man. Overnight the Negro has been given two frames of reference within which he has had to place himself. His metaphysics, or, less pretentiously, his customs and the sources on which they were based, were wiped out because they were in conflict with a civilization that he did not know and that imposed itself on him.” The metaphysics of the White World is brought to the point of entropy via this information boom, this forced contact with the rest of the World, with the thoughts, opinions, and theories of the rest of the World. This is an entropy that Black bodies had experience long ago under the excess of gratuitous anti-Black violence and white Enlightenment discourse. Whereas Black Study takes up the discursive field as a means to challenge the white metanarrative, or what Sylvia Wynter calls, “Man’s over-representation of himself;” it also works towards making the White World unliveable. Baurdrillard speaks to the dread of this prospect himself when he writes:

It is thus very naive to look for ethnology in the Savages or in some Third World – it is here, everywhere, in the metropolises, in the White community, in a world completely cataloged and analyzed, then artificially resurrected under the auspices of the real, in a world of simulation, of the  hallucination of truth, of the blackmail of the real, of the murder of every symbolic form  and of its hysterical, historical retrospection – a murder of which the Savages, noblesse oblige, were the first victims, but that for a long time has extended to all Western societies.

It’s for this reason, we should understand the moment as Post-Modern and not Post-Truth, and understand Black Study as a study that to the White World is always already Post-Modern in its always already incredulity to the metanarrative of Whiteness. Lewis Gordon says of Black Study:

Theory in black…is…a phobogenic designation. It occasions anxiety of thought; it is theory in jeopardy. […] There is a form of illicit seeing…at 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

Blackness as a phobogenic designation. Blackness as an anxiety to thought. Blackness as theory in jeopardy. Blackness as a mythopoetics of sin. Blackness as that which reaches out to theory as theory split from itself. Blackness as the dark side of theory, which becomes theory itself. This reading of the moment allows for the negative of Post-Truth to be transformed into the nadir of the Post-Modern condition. Black Twitter, for example, is a major part of this information boom that has challenged the hegemony of white metanarratives from Trump to CNN to FOX to Hillary and more. This challenge presents Whiteness with the fear of disappearance, or in Frank Wilderson words, “the end of Humanity.” Baudrillard, once again speaks to this fear of disappearance when he states:

Transpolitics is the elective sphere of the mode of disappearance (of the real, of meaning, of the stage, of history, of the social, of the individual). To tell the truth, it is no longer so much a question of nihilism: in disappearance, in the desertlike, aleatory, and indifferent form, there is no longer even pathos, the pathetic of nihilism – that mythical energy that is still the force of nihilism, of radicality, mythic denial, dramatic anticipation. It is no longer even disenchantment, with the seductive and nostalgic, itself enchanted, tonality of disenchantment. It is simply disappearance.

Blackness is the transpolitical par excellence (due to its transatlantic positional formation) that provides the lens through the White Real, the White Meaning, the White Stage, the White History, the White Social, and the White Individual, will disappear. It is the fear of disappearance that elected Trump in the first place. To “Make America Great Again” is simply white bodies wishing for the metanarratives of Whiteness to return to hegemony. For this reason, militant Black studies and Black struggle is more important now than ever. This moment, this unliveable moment, is the moment we’ve been waiting for.

Blackness and Loneliness: Notes On Impossible Possibilities

It has been a long time since I’ve been alone. And the coat of its warmth reminds me of the impossibility of a pure black loneliness. Black loneliness is always interrupted by the interjections of flesh. Flesh taken; flesh turn apart; flesh marred and maned; flesh turned to taxidermy, to spectacle, to fetish. Blackness and loneliness never coexist peacefully. There is always a violence that interrupts the Black that sits alone. It is because the violence is infinite and always expanding. The violence is the infinitely, expanding Universe itself. It is the World that constituted itself upon the murder, rape and plundering of Black life that now secures it functionality, its vitality, its energetic pulse through a continuation of that project of murder, rape and plundering. It is the World itself that allows for every existential experience of a life in conjunction with Blackness to be a life lived in the afterlife of slavery.

But what does this mean? What does it mean to live life in the afterlife of slavery? Sadiya Hartman describes what the afterlife of slavery looks like, saying that it is, “skewed life chances, limited access to health and education, premature death, incarceration, and impoverishment.” But, can what it looks like be what it is? What follows is subtle, but closer to the point of reaching what may be an answer to our question, Hartman writes, “I, too, am the afterlife of slavery.” What, then might it mean to be the afterlife of slavery? What does it mean for one’s being to be best described as, “skewed life chances, limited access to health and education, premature death, incarceration, and impoverishment”? What does it mean for that to be you?

 

Black life is lived in a strikethrough. This strikethrough forecloses access to life proper. The afterlife of slavery in black life is everywhere. The afterlife of slavery finds its way into the houses and homes of the middle-class Black lumpen-bourgeoisie. Those wealthy Black bodies who assumed that economic ascendency would provide the opportunity for their transcendence of Blackness. The afterlife of slavery finds itself, even inside those great white pillars, where a Black President and his Black family sleep atop the blood and sweat of Slaves. That blood and that sweat still stains the floorboards, and even their political ascendency as leaders of the Unfree Universe cannot evade the brush of vigilant anti-black violence that provided the space for their Black-faced neoliberal ascendance. The reason is that Black life is lived in a strikethrough. Black life is lived in the afterlife of slavery. And Black death is the World’s condition of possibility. If Black death is the World’s condition of possibility, then one can acknowledge a moment of singularity. The birth of the Modern World is like the Birth of the Universe. A violent rupture; a big bang, a remapping of space and time, has configured and constructed the World through the violent subjugation of the Black body. The Modern World expands infinitely through its continued project of expansive subjugation; new technologies are utilized, new mechanisms of power are weaponized, new models of the same paradigm – white-over-black, white-over-black, white-over-black – are made. And the World goes on.

And for some reason, that genocidal World-inaugurating moment elucidates a sense of radical possibility for those of us impossibly living in the afterlife of it. What if, “I, too, am the afterlife of slavery” was not a just an affirmative Afro-pessimism, but an affirmative cosmologic Afro-pessimism? And what if, to speak of those bodies who live in the afterlife of slavery, was to speak of those bodies emanating with the narratives, dreams, fantasies, resistances and possibilities of those bodies whose death was responsible for World-creation? What if this is what it means to never be alone, and to be the afterlife of slavery? What if it means to always be-with the flesh stolen on the coast of Africa, the flesh chained and locked on board the ship, the flesh thrown overboard the ship, the flesh put on the auction block, the flesh murdered, raped, and brutalized? And what if to be always with this flesh is not only to live life always in a strikethrough, but always in the afterlife of that slavery that is death, always with/in the afterlife?

In Christian thought, Christ’s death is not an end, but the beginning of life in the afterlife of Christ. When Christ is reborn, he leaves behind his spirit to guide the way of his followers, and reminds them that one day He will return. Whosoever believeth in him, shall have afterlasting life. I would like to think of the ensemble of Black death in analogous way. The Black was subjected to gratuitous violence, not to save the World as Christ was, but to create one. And the rebirth of slavery to which all black flesh is subjected to, through its Jim Crow formulation to its neo-Jim Crow carceral continuum, is nothing more than the spirit of slavery that always encapsulates the Black. In the same way, that the spirit of Christ is thought to always be-with the Christian; the spirit of Slavery is always with the Black. This is the afterlife of slavery. But what makes Blackness such a radical rejection of Euro-Christian values, of Western values, of Whiteness, is that blackness represents an abject positionality that is always already a “bunch” or an “ensemble” So when Hartman says, “I, too, am the afterlife of slavery” the “I” is a collection of black narratives of rape and resistance, death and deviance, violence and vigilance, fear and fugitivity. The “I” is emanating with the originary ensemble of black death, the originary subjection of the Slave that is always the Enslaved (plural). It is for this reason that the only thing worth starting is the End of the World. For the World itself constitutes the continuation of Black death, for the World was made possible through that death.

Whereas Christ returns to life to save the World, the Black returns to life to end it. One of the most provocative claims of Afro-Pessimism is that the World can end, again. (It’s after the end of the world, don’t you know that yet?) And I think it’s very important that we imagine that end, and then imagine black life after the end of the World.  Black death started it, and black life lived without a strikethrough will end it.  For the end of the World looks like, as Frank Wilderson puts it, giving “life itself back to the Slave.” Whosoever believeth in them, shall have afterlasting life. Whosoever believeth in them – believeth in the flesh that will not allow you to be alone, believeth in the flesh that will not allow you to be an “I”, believeth in the flesh that reminds you that ontological resistance in the eyes of the Black is paraontological possibility, the flesh stolen, the flesh through overboard, the flesh put on the auction block, the flesh made into chattel, the flesh lynched, the flesh raped, the flesh murdered, the flesh water-hosed, the flesh that rebelled, the flesh that taught, the flesh that loved, the flesh that struggled, the flesh that cared and built and willed and strove to end the World – shall have afterlasting life. For somewhere in their stories, in their lives, is the way the World was made, the way the World will end, the way black life will be realized as black life, and the reason why blackness is never alone.