Symposium Introduction

Against the logic of post-racial discourse, critical race theorists have exposed how American institutions have always been organized around policies and practices that reinforce the social death of those citizens racialized as Black, in order to sustain white supremacy and white innocence about its ruthlessness.  Indeed the sovereign infliction of social death upon Black bodies was the ur phenomenon of our racial democracy and every stage of American history that we represent as a sign of our “progress” toward racial equality was in fact accompanied by a new institutional means of inflicting social death (lynching, Jim Crow laws, redlining, mass incarceration) that did not thereby replace or erase earlier forms of social death and the harms they produced. The question provoked by the analyzes of social death then becomes one of how to live as someone marked for destruction, in a culture that both ensures and disavows this un-natural vulnerability to state violence through post-racial discourse that produces moral blindness and indifference about the extremity of systemic racist violence in the American present.

In his book The Post-Racial Limits of Memorialization: Toward a Political Sense of Mourning, Alfred Frankowski takes up this question of how to respond to the violence of systemic, antiblack racism that is normalized by post-racial discourse by focusing on the intersection between the political and aesthetic dimensions of racial violence. He illustrates that the ways in which we memorialize episodes of antiblack violence or racist institutions such as slavery or racist policies such as Jim Crow or civil rights heroes such as Martin Luther King Jr. occurs within and reinforces the intractability of post-racial discourse by producing a corresponding post-racial sensibility. Through his analysis he reveals that traditional modes of memorialization produce post-racial representations of antiblack racism in American history that create the context and the possibility for the continuity of state violence against Black bodies: memorialization produces a type of post racialized memory that is, at the same time, a form of forgetting that is complicit with the social and political and institutional destruction of Black life.

Frankowski’s association between the aesthetic representation of state violence and the continuity of that violence is supported by his interpretation of the Cassandra Complex, a network of relations and practices and systematic modes of denial that induce historical forgetting and moral blindness to the extremity of the present that emerges from and survived the extreme violence of the past.  Indeed, its modus operandi is not only to elide a past marked with its violence but to make our sense of memory wedded to an action that produces remembrance, on the one hand, and forgetting, on the other. The complex is based on the tragic Greek figure of Cassandra, who offered accurate forecasts that no one could believe, and so suffered from the violence she predicted.  The aesthetic distortion of state violence against Black citizens in the American past and our post-racial representation of state violence against Black citizens in the American present preclude their comparative analysis as essentially related to the same, continuous, institutional system of antiblack racism; in this way our memorialization of antiblack violence precludes the ability to believe or understand the true prophesy of its inevitable and yet preventable repetition.

Frankowski’s analysis of the relation between the sensible and the political in the modes of memorialization by which we represent and remember antiblack violence reveals the inadequacy of the politics of recognition as a goal and means by which we can end racist violence, as the terms of this recognition are already complicit within and re-inscribe the post-racial context in which it occurs.  For the aim of recognition already presupposes the ability to understand and adequately represent the historical conditions that have ruthlessly prevented the recognition of Black citizens through the sovereign infliction of social death on racialized communities; in this way the conciliatory, liberal effort to recognize the equality of Black citizens works to reconcile Americans to the brutality of antiblack racism in the present and obfuscate our un-mastered relation to the past.

Following his analysis of the post-racial context in which memorialization occurs and the post-racialized form of memory and aesthetic sensibility that it produces, Frankowski considers the aesthetic and political value of mourning as a response to this context, as it can provoke the disorientation toward the present needed to disrupt our post-racial representations of its ‘sense.’  Frankowski explores the politics of collective mourning as a way to interrupt the normalization of social death within post-racial memorialization and post-racialized memory.  Thus he does not recommend the political sense of collective mourning in an effort to reconcile ourselves to this death but instead to interrupt the logic of post-racial representations of racist violence in order to expose what they cannot name, or the lethal presence of social death in the present that transforms mourning from a private endeavor into an activity without end: the need for mourning for every Black life that is always already vulnerable to state violence cannot be explained with reference to post-racial representations of American history.  In this way Frankowski recommends a political sense of mourning as a shift in collective practice that is not informed by the post-racialized representations of antiblack violence and the post-racialized sensibility that is antithetical to this sense of mourning or the inability to reconcile oneself to the present.

Frankowski explains that a distinctly political expression of mourning to expose the post-racial context in which we live does not treat mourning as the task of grieving, or a cathartic expression of sorrow for the death of an individual, but instead as a collective effort to mourn for the impossibility of Black life in a system that is based on and driven by its subjugation.  Here, there is no end to mourning and there is no effort to represent what is mourned; the political sense of mourning does not leave us with the false comfort of having understood the violence that provoked the need to mourn.  Instead it can serve as an interruption in the aesthetic sensibility that accompanies post-racial representations of antiblack violence so that we feel the problem anew, and feel our un-reconciled relation to the past and present.  We cannot forswear the responsibility to remember racist violence and we cannot ‘detach’ the mode in which this memory occurs from an aesthetic sensibility that frames these memories, but Frankowski’s exploration into the politics of mourning provides hope that we can interrupt and destabilize the sensibility that accompanies the post-racial representation of this violence.

The review essays of Frankowski’s text presented in this Syndicate forum are written by scholars who work in the fields of philosophy and critical race theory, and they critically engage with one or two questions raised by the text and the practical implications that follow for our ability to resist and navigate the perils facing Black life in a world saturated with post-racial sensibility.

In his review essay on “Resistance and the Reconfiguration of the Sensible,” Adam Burgos expounds on Frankowski’s insights regarding the centrality of sensibility to politics in order to speculate about the political value of mourning as well as the relation of Frankowski’s theory to Jacques Rancière’s connection between political resistance and aesthetic sensibility.  He pursues this comparison in an effort to question whether the logic of recognition is really avoided by or antithetical to the move toward sensibility as political practice.

In his essay “Being a Problem: Aesthetic Violence and the Politics of Recognition,” Michael L. Thomas draws on Frankowski’s analysis of “The Cassandra Complex” in order to shed light on W.E.B. Du Bois’ concept of the “color line,” as well as Du Bois’ reticence to answer the “real question” posed by seemingly anti-racist whites: “How does it feel to be a problem?” as written in his text The Souls of Black Folk.  Through this analysis Thomas illustrates how Frankowski’s theory helps us to better understand the trap of language that works to reinforce white innocence and post-racial discourse even (and especially) in the effort to represent or decry racist violence.  He then draws out the larger implications of Frankowski’s study and recommends a broad approach to the social aesthetics of race in order to expose alternative texts such as civil rights legislation as failed forms of memorialization that also reinscribe post racial discourse and the discursive conditions for the repetition of antiblack racism.

In his essay on “Fantasies of Mourning in Amerikkka,” P. Khalil Saucier views Frankowski’s project to lay the ground for a new political sense of mourning as the philosophical companion to the Community Remembrance Project of the Equal Justice Initiative to remember the victims of lynching in the state of Alabama through displaying large glass jars, each filled with soil from the site of a different lynching.  He then questions the effectiveness of the turn toward mourning in a state that is founded on and sustained by the reduction of Black life to non-being, and considers whether the political sense of mourning only re-inscribes the racist fantasy that Black lives are now properly mourned as well as reinforces white indifference regarding the extremity of antiblack violence in the present.

In her essay on “The Politics of Mourning Against Systemic Oppression,” Lissa Skitolsky extends Frankowki’s analysis of the politics of mourning as a response to and rupture of the post-racial discourse that sustains and disavows anti-black racism to the possibility that it can also function as a response to and rupture of the post-gender discourse that distorts and disavows the discursive, institutional, and psychic-physical violence inflicted by the state against women and the LGBTQ community.  She also suggests that the need of Frankowski’s notion of a collective politics of mourning is particularly evident in the fact that marginalized communities must pre-emptively mourn for the inevitable and entirely preventable infliction of traumatic violence and premature death.  In this sense Skitolsky argues that the politics of mourning can be a powerful form of protest for individuals overdetermined by their inclusion in any marginalized population, who must navigate through the social death into which they were born and that pervades the community to which they belong.

In her review essay “The Time of Mourning,” Shannon Sullivan connects Frankowski’s analysis of post-racialized memory with a distinct form of “white temporality” that highlights the way white people sustain and disavow the extremity of antiblack violence through their relationship to time and history.  She then suggests that we re-orient our sense of time to accommodate a geographical or archeological model of temporality wherein the past is felt in the present.

Frankowski’s responses to these essays take up each question that is raised and further explain what is distinctly political about the sense of collective mourning and also persuasively argue that our post-racialized representations of antiblack violence and the entrenched nature of post-racial discourse indicates the need for a political shift directly incited by aesthetic means.

Adam Burgos


Resistance and the Reconfiguration of the Sensible

Politics is about much more than the laws we enact, the politicians we elect, the institutional structures and procedures that we support, and the distribution of rights and goods that undergird those decisions. It is, certainly, all of those things, but it is also something deeper and more fundamental to our way of being in society and among those with whom we live: at the level of our sensibility lies that which conditions our experiences and interactions. By sensibility I am referring to the status quo of our existence, how we perceive the world and those around us, how we move around in that world—including how we are seen as we do so—and what we use as the bases for our judgments about it. This pre-reflective, though certainly not pre-experiential, scaffolding of experience is what is at stake in Alfred Frankowski’s book The Post-Racial Limits of Memorialization: Toward a Political Sense of Mourning. In what follows I want to think through some of the consequences of how the text understands resistance as it relates to our ability to critique the contemporary world, and what critique looks like, given the centrality of sensibility to politics.

The crux of Frankowski’s argument is that the normative presuppositions of post-racial discourse suppress and deny recognition of the continuation of past violence in the present in and through how such a discourse memorializes—appears to recognize—past violence. In other words, post-racial memorialization derives its meaning from its representations of past violence that, while nevertheless supplying the bare facts and showing the real history, also position that history as broken off from the present. Post-racial memorialization implicitly states that the sins of the past have been washed away in the same breath that it seemingly connects us to them. The result is a tension and a palpable strangeness that inheres within our contemporary world, as we are temporally alienated from the consequences of our history by the discourse we employ to represent and remember it. In laying bare the perils and violence of that discourse, Frankowski urges us to resist it through political mourning that enacts our failure to understand and represent both past and present modes of racist violence.

The motif of strangeness that pervades our post-racial present is central to the book as a whole and, as I read it, supplies the grounding for resistance. There is the strangeness within the efforts of memorialization that Frankowski outlines, but there is also strangeness—a sense of being out of place—within the general construction of black lives in the United States in the story he tells. Indeed, these memorializations reflect a more comprehensive strangeness, a sense of displacement within those “lives in whom death is always already present not because they are mortal, but rather because their lives are not recognized as legitimate” (5). This is an aesthetic dispossession insofar as it burrows all the way down into the depths of lived experiences and sensibility (6). Frankowski deploys the notion of sensibility as a part of the political mourning he outlines, involving an account of critical aesthetics, which “concerns itself with the relation of what is sensed to the limitations of the sensible” (xviii). In doing so he implores us to consider how we can refashion our connection to the past so that it recognizes our own present connection to past violence, and how that violence inextricably shapes our present world.

The aesthetic dimension unfolds as Frankowski brings forth the strangeness of our present moment through the ways that memorialization both does and does not recognize past and present racism and violence against black bodies. Resistance arrives through the “political sense of mourning” produced by Frankowski’s critical aesthetics. This is mourning distinct from other philosophical and psychoanalytical senses in that it “is an attempt to always carry the loss within the present” (xx). Unpacking and reckoning with this phrase across the many contexts of our lived experiences, it would seem, yields the distinct moments of resistance that exist as possibilities within society. The importance placed on aesthetics and its links to the political convincingly reveals not only an important and under-theorized dimension of the wrongheadedness of the post-racial ideal; it also directs us to the necessary resistance that will challenge it.

We need to ask, then, how it is that mourning, resistance, and sensibility are connected, and where exactly this connection leads us. The political sense of mourning expands our sensibility in order to affect a shift in perspective that would allow us to interpret our present in light of the past rather than covering it over and separating ourselves from it. More importantly, however, is a second aspect of the political sense of mourning. Beyond the production of a new way of reflecting on our lives and the history in which they are situated, political mourning steadfastly demands action and therefore “a reformulation of our political agency” (98). Mourning is above all active insofar as it demands that we confront the world as it bumps up against the limits of our cognition, which is illustrated in the strangeness connoted by post-racial memorialization—a contradictory situation that cannot be reconciled (88).

Post-racial remembering is a sensibility of denial (10). Its orientation to the past proscribes mourning and thereby also proscribes the kind of adequate understanding of the present that might lead to recognition of the effects of past violence and its traumas, and so therefore justice as well. He writes, “Mourning makes the context in which we lived appear now as a problem” (98). Political mourning confronts this problem and demands action to respond to it. Our sensibility is formed and reformed by history and the institutions we live with, which have been embedded within the structure of social and political relations in which we exist (14). Mourning as active resistance, then, targets this sensibility in order to change it and acts to combat the contexts in which we live that have become problems.

Such a description of how resistance functions in relation to sensibility has much in common with how Jacques Rancière has articulated his notion of politics. As I read both Frankowski and Rancière their positions are much more complementary than the former believes them to be. He positions Rancière as a Hegelian philosopher of recognition along the lines of Axel Honneth (67). While it is true that literature exists arguing for this connection, it is vexed enough that even if we qualify Rancière’s position as one of recognition, it is of a much different sort than that of Honneth; a sort, I would say, that complements and supports Frankowski’s arguments here rather than opposing them.1 Rancière explicitly positions the notion of disagreement at the center of his thought, which opposes the kinds of consensus and reconciliation that come with Honneth’s view.2

Rancière also connects resistance to sensibility, defining resistance as that which disrupts the supposed harmony of the status quo and its social relations. In doing so resistance affirms that those who have been deemed not to count within society ought to count.3 Opposing his view to Rancière’s, Frankowski writes, “The struggle is not simply to be heard, but to have what is heard carry over the sense that these lives matter and that these deaths and forms of oppression are in need of abolition” (68). I would argue that in Rancière’s writings these two possibilities are not opposed to one another but are in fact the same thing: performative assertions of resistance state that the lives of those who resist, and those like them, matter and that fact undermines the current configuration of society. As a result, the relations of society ought to be reconfigured, or, as Rancière writes, to be redistributed so that how we sense our surroundings is altered.4

As I interpret Frankowski, the limits of the sensible are the target of mourning and resistance, meaning that at stake in resistance is what we accept and don’t accept as possible configurations of our world. This, to me, is at the heart of his text and what necessitates further elaboration. He indicates that political mourning works through displacement of the present constitution of the world, it unsettles; it is a critique that puts our very selves as well as the world around us in question (94). Even further, it puts the very lifeworld of the community at stake (75). He makes the additional claim, consistent with the overall thesis regarding the importance of sensibility, that “philosophical liberalism has addressed racism in its most idealized forms, but it has failed to confront it in its material form” (106). This materiality of racism would seem to be the consequence of our history and institutions, the literal environments that they produce, and the forms of sensibility that they engender. What does it mean, then, to focus resistance on the materiality of racism?

The task—indeed, the responsibility—is to exert a shift in our cognition that allows us to see problems in new ways (91). In other words, we ought to reconfigure the limits of possibility that constrain how we sense and engage with the world in the deepest sense. In order to do so Frankowski draws a distinction between pragmatic actions that are done for the sake of specific ends and the “practice of living with ourselves and others and living through our contexts” (108). The implication is that the former relies on the false idea that progress can be made within our post-racial context—this amounts to a form of reconciliation that would validate, rather than resist, continuing racist violence; the latter is resistance and serves to reshape our sensibility in order to resist that context.

In a sense, Frankowski’s political mourning invites us to turn the strangeness of the post-racial onto itself, recapturing it, such that we create a new tension between what the status quo sees as politically acceptable and what he calls “living our contexts” through new forms of agency. I interpret these invocations of strangeness and tension as alternative ways of describing contradictions between ourselves and the world, implying that the resistance of political mourning acts as response to the contradiction. Instead of overcoming the contradiction of the post-racial, which would be mere reconciliation, resistance creates a different contradiction; it displaces the displacement anew. This latter contradiction, between the world as it is and the world as it could be, involves a refusal to participate in the machinations of the existing structures of oppression. Again, this must occur at the level of materiality in order to avoid “simply appear[ing] to be actively resisting oppression” (107). Such a refusal is rooted in Frankowski’s adoption and defense of a philosophical pessimism connected to Derrick Bell’s race realism.

Philosophical pessimism entails starting where we are, which means we recognize the ways that our present is constituted by the past (105). That is, it requires recognition of the world we inhabit as it truly is, and seeing that “racist violence is part of us in ways that we would rather evade, forget, or deny” (88). Acknowledgment of the past and subsequent actions stemming from it would serve to reinforce alterations to our sensibility. Such an outcome is more faithful to the truths of the world. If taken up on an adequate scale it could also have the paradoxical effect of changing aspects of the contemporary world, and perhaps righting, at least to some small degree, its wrongs. I say paradoxically because this goal is precisely what Frankowski opposes to acts of “living through our context.” Acts that live up to this latter description will be products of their localized environments and radically underdetermined, lending credence to Howard Caygill’s contention that to posit a theory of resistance is to evacuate it of its potential for results, which hinges on unpredictability and total specificity.5

In light of the focus on philosophical pessimism, I wonder about the dichotomy of resistance that Frankowski sets up. On the one hand there is superficial post-racial resistance, and on the other is the political sense of mourning that focuses on “living within and living through our context.” He also, however, opposes political mourning to acting for the sake of some end, implying that pragmatic political actions are coterminous with superficial resistance (107–8). This latter identification prompts further questions about the nature of resistance here, both in a particular and a general sense. Frankowski writes, “Grief and mourning are activities transitioning the solitary self toward the community” (97). The idea that we ought to focus on community calls to mind a prefigurative politics seeking to instantiate new modes of existing together from the bottom up.

There is a utopian element to this line of thinking that involves living out in miniature the world that we would hope for; acting “as if” the world were a different place in an effort to really make the world a different place, even if only a small part of it. Perhaps this is in fact the paradox at the heart of resistance, the juxtaposition of the sober pessimism necessary to adequately recognize the dire state of the world in a deep and structural sense, alongside the utopian drive to change it despite the seemingly insurmountable odds. Another way of saying that the task of mourning is to reconfigure the limits of our sensibility is to say that we ought to attempt to make the impossible possible. Even as Frankowski urges us to move away from working within the existing irreconcilable racist system and its institutions, we end up with localized practices of mourning that respond to that system and illustrate an alternative, based in alternative values, relationships, sensibilities, and actions.

Given the contradictions, strangeness, tensions, and paradoxes of our historically constituted present, perhaps it is no surprise that a forceful response to the state of things would evince similar characteristics. This important book acknowledges and works through these realities in an effort to redistribute how our sensible worlds are constituted—no small task. Such a refashioning of the social world and our sense of community, and the presuppositions that constitute our shared world, necessitates coming to grips with our temporality. Frankowski forcefully highlights the necessity of doing so deep within the sensible fabric of our temporal experience. Responding to his prompt to consider what it would look like to reconfigure our relationship to that experience as mourning rather than remembrance, I have attempted to outline some preliminary responses based on the meanings and implications of resistance that challenge his formulation of the concept while remaining true to the spirit of his writing.

  1. See Jean-Philippe Deranty, “Jacques Rancière’s Contribution to The Ethics of Recognition,” Political Theory 31, no. 1 (2003) 136–56.

  2. See Axel Honneth et al., Recognition or Disagreement: A Critical Encounter on the Politics of Freedom, Equality, and Identity, New Directions in Critical Theory (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016).

  3. Jacques Rancière, “Ten Theses on Politics,” in Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics, edited by Steven Corcoran (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2010), 27–44.

  4. For a fuller account of my own view on Rancière’s conception of resistance, see my Political Philosophy and Political Action: Imperatives of Resistance (London: Rowman & Littlefield International, 2017), 159–84.

  5. “Defining a concept of resistance risks making it predictable, open to control and thus lowering its resistance.” See Howard Caygill, On Resistance: A Philosophy of Defiance (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013), 6.

  • Alfred Frankowski

    Alfred Frankowski


    Beyond the Dissensus Schema

    In “Resistance and the Reconfiguration of the Sensible,” Adam Burgos has provided a careful reading of how The Post-Racial Limits of Memorialization takes up the challenge of thinking politics through the aesthetic. Burgos’s text considers both the political and the aesthetic consequences of using mourning as a way of making an aesthetic claim on the political and one that requires a schematic redistribution of the sensible as such. One of my arguments through The Post-Racial Limits of Memorialization is that aesthetics gives us a different sense of the violence of the political because of its focus on the way the sensible becomes strange in reference to the political. I argue that this sense has the potential to be reconfigured as fundamentally an interruption, and as I argue, it is this sense in memorializations that are politically powerful to the extent that they make the present strange. Because of this Burgos suggests that Jacques Rancière’s political aesthetics may be of use and more productive in this sphere and possibly that by taking up this framework, there could be a closer relationship between the political sense of mourning that I argue for and the recognition politics that I critique. Although I agree with this sentiment to some extent, I think the differences are worth making a bit more explicit.

    In terms of political analysis my view is in agreement with Rancière’s notion of democracy and its relation to the sensible. When Rancière writes, “The essential work of politics is the configuration of its own space. It is to make the world of its subjects and objects seen. The essence of politics is the manifestation of dissensus as the presence of two worlds in one,”1 he is accounting for the difference in which oppression and violence are held within a world at odds with its counterpart. Likewise, when he argues that “we need images of action, images of the truer reality or images that can immediately be inverted into their true nature, in order to show us that the mere fact of being a spectator, the mere fact of viewing images, is a bad thing,”2 he seems to preemptively focus on the problem of whereby the representation itself is delinked from the political domain of action. The book worries over this as well. Rancière’s focus on the aesthetic is to show how the scope of recognition can be expanded through the appearance of discordant voices. He points out, “For all time, the refusal to consider certain categories of people as political beings has proceeded by means of a refusal to hear the words exiting their mouths as discourse.”3 The voice of the oppressed contributes to the furthering of not only the terms through which recognition is possible, but it also reproduces those very same terms. This hints at where Rancière’s view and I differ because the problem of post-raciality is not merely that voices or images are left out, in fact, the problem is the way in which they are included. And so, a different aesthetic problem is formulated in reference to post-raciality and anti-black violence.

    Much like Rancière, my notion of a political sense of mourning signals the need for a political shift directly incited by aesthetic means. But unlike Rancière, it does not reveal a political claim that was formerly heard only as noise anymore than it assists the political in recognizing its own violence.4 I argue that a political sense of mourning does not lay claim to our relation to appearance, representation, or recognition. Rather it lays claim to our relationship to our collective practices. My claim is that in the United States we live in a context where the appearance or disappearance of anti-black violence has become irrelevant to the constitution of practices of anti-black violence. When we think of the way politics and aesthetics conjoin more schematically as Rancière does, he points out that the essence of politics is a dissensus, a gap in the sensible itself. But is it not this gap — while often configured as the group left out, without a voice, without representation, prefiguratively un-recognizable, it could just as well be a gap that is constituted by the voices that establish a continuity — a form of representation and recognition that is continuous with a context of oppression?5

    The aesthetic is further problematic not only for what it makes come to view, but for the practices it retrenches. Take, for example, the use of police body cameras. They bring into view what the black community has been saying for a long time: police brutality is real, systematic, and normalized when the police come into contact with black bodies. As Rancière suggests, there should be an aesthetic shift from talking about police brutality or the law’s violence against blacks toward a claim of justice. However, the problem remains at odds with how the aesthetic does and does not result in a radical shift in the practices regarding black lives as disposable. On the one hand, body cameras and the reposting of violence against black bodies is part of a distribution that alters awareness of black vulnerability. But, on the other hand, it formally recreates the ways in which black bodies are props for white ex-culpability.

    If I have Rancière’s view right, then I think that the state’s relation to the oppressed is distinctly an aesthetic one where recognition is what changes the oppressed and silenced into the empowered and mobilized, who are changing the political. But this only seems to be correct if we think that oppression has only one type of aesthetic relation to the political and that the history of racism does not augment this in any way. In terms of political discourse, the aesthetic dynamics of post-racial discourse follow forms of recognition and Rancière’s thought is definitely applicable and in the ways Burgos has suggested. But from the side of aesthetics, post-racial discourse we should be aware that it is this context that makes the ever new forms of recognition appear as transformation, while meaning retrenchment—and thus I am inclined to maintain my suspicion that this is a mode of complicity with post-racial violence even in its potential opposition to it. But more can and should be said to explore these nuances.

    1. Jacques Ranceire, “Ten Theses on Politics,” in Dissensus: Art and Politics, trans. S. Corcoran (New York: Continuum, 2010), 37.

    2. Rancière, “The Intolerable Image,” in The Emancipated Spectator, trans. G. Elliott (New York: Verso, 2009), 87.

    3. Rancière, “Aesthetics as Politics,” Aesthetics and its Discontents, trans. S. Cocoran (New York: Polity, 2004), 24.

    4. Rancière, “Aesthetics as Politics,” 25.

    5. Rancière, “Ten Theses on Politics,” 38.

Michael Thomas


Being a Problem

Aesthetic Violence and the Politics of Recognition

Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: unasked by some through feelings of delicacy; by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it. All, nevertheless, flutter round it. They approach me in a half- hesitant sort of way, eye me curiously or compassionately, and then, instead of saying directly, How does it feel to be a problem? they say, I know an excellent colored man in my town; or, I fought at Mechanicsville; or, Do not these Southern outrages make your blood boil? At these I smile, or am interested, or reduce the boiling to a simmer, as the occasion may require. To the real question, How does it feel to be a problem? I answer seldom a word.

—Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk

Why does Du Bois withhold the real question? If the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line, why evade exploring this problem with seemingly anti-racist whites? In his new book The Post-Racial Limits of Memorialization, Alfred Frankowski offers us a fruitful way of reading this situation via his notion of the “Cassandra Complex,” “a whole network of relations and systematic notions of denial” through which racial violence is perpetuated through representation and neglect (66).

Frankowski’s Cassandra Complex captures how post-racial contexts enable complicity with racial violence through the sense that it is “unthinkable because it is too distant in the past or too opaque in the present to understand” (66). Its first feature involves the disarticulaton of past violence from present history. In the Orestia, the relationship between Cassandra and the Chorus is marked by the fact that her prophecy is unintelligible to the audience despite her telling them of their own history. Her story of the future involves, as Frankowski notes, “the violence of the past as this violence is structuring the present” (66). This process is at work in the responses to Du Bois’ presence in the above quote. Each response to Du Bois’ presence positions the speaker relative to him in a “safe” relationship. They’re the equivalent to “I have a black friend,” “I marched with Dr. King in ’63,” or “I can’t believe those rural people still have such backwards beliefs.” Each speaker responds to Du Bois by absolving himself through past action or presenting positioning as anti-racist. Thus, they address the problematic nature of Du Bois’ presence, but the source of the problem, the real question, is left unasked.

Behind the thought that Du Bois’ interlocutors are anti-racist allies is the afterthought that there is an unbridgeable gap in experience that keeps the two worlds asunder. This is the second feature of the Cassandra Complex, that the inability to see the other, racialized, world isolates its inhabitants as “killable” since the conditions leading to their deaths are not directly confronted (81). In the Orestia, Cassandra’s murder is omitted from the resolution in the third play. The trial only involves the death of Clytemestra at the hands of Orestes. This limits justice to the field of blood and betrayal amongst the royal house, leaving the others as collateral damage. Today, this means that we maintain our complicity with racist violence through the abstract murder of African Americans by exclusion from the sphere of justice.

The Cassandra Complex allows Frankowski to critique the politics of recognition on the grounds that recognition is complicit with both forms of post-racial violence. Through the connection with Dubois, we see that recognition produces a double violence that reproduces segregation in experience. First, recognition reproduces the color line by attempting to address it. Each speaker recognizes Du Bois as black, while simultaneously bracketing their individual relationship from the larger social context that makes them “hesitant,” “curious,” or “compassionate” in his presence. Thus, while his white interlocutors are able to distance themselves from present racism and its persistence in history, Du Bois must continue to bear “the real question,” as a constitutive element of his experience. He doesn’t respond because the question is unasked, having been bracketed from whitely experience.

The second form of violence perpetuates a narrative of progress in the whitely world, producing complicity and reinforcing prejudices that degrade black experience and reproduce subordination as necessity. Du Bois identifies this form in the early history of emancipation, where he notes that the African American struggle for freedom was carried out through three watchwords: emancipation, the ballot, and education. The fourteenth and fifteenth amendments, along with the project of negro education are carried out, but frustrated at each step, allowing the persistence of prejudice. Du Bois describes the violence of this failure:

But before that nameless prejudice that leaps beyond all this he stands helpless, dismayed, and well-nigh speechless; before that personal disrespect and mockery, the ridicule and systematic humiliation, the distortion of fact and wanton license of fancy, the cynical ignoring of the better and the boisterous welcoming of the worse, the all-pervading desire to inculcate disdain for everything black, from Toussaint to the devil,—before this there rises a sickening despair that would disarm and discourage any nation save that black host to whom “discouragement” is an unwritten word. (Du Bois 42)

The despair felt by African Americans leads to self-criticism and self-doubt, always through the lens of the presupposed progress of society. Markers for “social progress” are symbols for those outside the veil that their community has achieved a new phase of recognition, overcoming the problems of the past. For those within the veil, these representations are so many false idols that add to the feeling that African Americans should “Be content to be servants, and nothing more; what need of higher culture for half-men?” (Du Bois 42) In this situation, to be a problem means to feel oneself always already proscribed to subordination and toil, with all ideal possibilities limited to moderate achievements that mark progress while masking a history of false and failed promises. Thus, recognition creates a sense of collective achievement in one lifeworld, while isolating the members of the other world to continued oppression and death.

Beyond elucidating Frankowski’s critique of recognition, the connection between his work and Du Bois’ encounter indicates that what he characterizes as post-racial violence extends beyond our contemporary context. There is a history of aesthetic violence that characterizes the history of race in America through an experience of blackness as isolated other and killable excess. Through this violence, blackness is historically experienced through compassion, fear, or hatred, but rarely, if at all, as a moral agent. Thus, blackness is associated with a position of social death and the impossibility of human flourishing.

The source of aesthetic violence is found in Frankowski’s analysis of Kant’s critical aesthetics. On his reading, Kant’s notion of aesthetic pleasure is tied to the “expansion of the lifeworld” (70). We feel pleasure by moving from the force of mere appearance (Bloss) to the harmony of our personal cognitions with the “appearance of sociability of the public sphere” (71). In other words, we feel our own worldview expanded in concert with the set of values that constitute the context of our shared lifeworld. Thus, our sense of “the beautiful” is a power of our reflective judgment to achieve a self-relation that we believe reflects our social whole. Seen through this lens, the politics of recognition, through its emphasis on direct interpersonal relationships and personal accord with anti-racist social principles obscures our collective failure to move beyond recognition to a shared lifeworld, reinscribing racist violence.

This way of experiencing the beautiful commits two forms of violence that characterize the experience of blackness. The first follows a trajectory similar to black invisibility as theorized by Gordon (1997) and Taylor (2016), where blackness is hyper-visible through its various cultural representations, but is invisible on the level of moral personhood. The responses to Du Bois, for example, are a form of “aesthetic integration” (Taylor 122), in which he can occupy a previously segregated space without the conditions of his segregation being addressed. Thus, blackness is not fully cognized and excluded from the moral considerations of beauty. At the same time, blackness persists through the continued presence of the problem of segregation. The force of Du Bois’ presence as a site of hesitancy and pity continues in these interactions since he is not fully situated into the white lifeworld. The negative feelings he evokes persist as mere appearance, actively excluded from representation.

As a result, the active neglect of black lives contributes to the experience of being always already facing the conditions of social death. From the Kantian perspective, “The Negro is not a non-person, but a relational difference—for Kant, an already dead—and this marks the edge of normative culture and the relation to violence” (74). In aesthetic terms, white Americans outside of the veil are able to enjoy the catharsis of folding their representations of black lives into the collective narrative of American progress, or decadence in the case of racists. On the other side of the veil, African Americans are always already in a situation of racial violence where our own cognition of the persistence of racist practices in history is excluded from being woven into the tapestry of political life. Here, the “rational confrontation of viewpoints” demanded by the white lifeworld is insufficient for the cause of those on the other side of the color line (74). Reducing the problem to these terms evokes the memory of long unfulfilled promises that present the conditions of black experience as fated (20). It signals that the harms of the past will continue to persist due to the half-hearted way they are undertaken. The Black Cassandra is killable precisely because that is her role in the play, and through that role she is permanently excluded from the possibility of human flourishing.

Thus where Frankowski argues that “blackness is a situation in itself. Negro is a relation, temporal, historical, and political” (73), we can say along with Du Bois that to be black in the United States is to be a problem. It means existing in a quantum state of hypervisibility and imperceptibility where one bears the immanent possibility of social death and the appeal to overcome these conditions consistently falls on deaf ears. In response to the problem, Frankowski advocates racial realism and philosophical pessimism as a way of reorienting our situation to feel the force of racism carried over through past injustice and present in collective life. His Fanonian statement that we are “always already in a context of violence” is, then, an acknowledgment that the excess of the negro as mere appearance is actually an essential feature of our collective lifeworld, the real question that must be posed in a way that orients us to recognize our collective complicity in the perpetuation of aesthetic violence.

Frankowski’s position leads us to recognize that addressing the real questions requires us to take a broad approach to the social aesthetics of race. For example, Frankowski’s analysis along with Ajume Wingo’s notion of “veil” politics points towards a view of civil rights legislation and court decisions as failed forms of memorializations of racial progress, which obscure the extra-juridical forms of oppression that persist through history. In addition, Paul Taylor’s work on black aesthetics would help complicate our standardized notions of beauty and blackness to make room for a counter-aesthetic that includes black art and the experience of blackness in our understanding of aesthetic experience. These approaches converge on a notion of “black experience,” as a way of capturing the failures of aesthetic integration to address the way blackness is excluded from representation in lived experience, allowing our implicit biases and somatic responses to interracial encounters intact. Doing so should allow us to move from addressing representations of race to grapple with the persistence of racialization that Frankowski, citing Yancy, notes is “there in our bodies,” built into our everyday comportment, and inhibits our capacity to perceive others and ourselves.


Du Bois, W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folk. Edited by David W. Blight and Robert Gooding-Williams. Boston: Bedford / St. Martins, 1997.

Frankowski, Alfred. The Post-Racial Limits of Memorialization: Toward a Political Sense of Mourning. Lanham: Lexington, 2015.

Taylor, Paul. Black Is Beautiful: A Philosophy of Black Aesthetics. Hoboken: Wiley, 2016.

  • Alfred Frankowski

    Alfred Frankowski


    The Cassandra Complex and the Aesthetics of Social Death

    In Michael Thomas’s “Being a Problem: Aesthetic Violence and the Politics of Recognition” he develops the way Du Bois’s thought relates to the Cassandra Complex and argues for a need for a deeper understanding of the social aesthetics of race. He goes further to explore the way the history of black vulnerability is caught within the aesthetic limits of political forms of recognition. He writes, “There is a history of aesthetic violence that characterizes the history of race in America through an experience of blackness as isolated other and killable excess. Through this violence, blackness is historically experienced through compassion, fear, or hatred, but rarely, if at all, as a moral agent. Thus, blackness is associated with a position of social death and the impossibility of human flourishing.” In my reply I would like to take this chance to think with Thomas, particularly along the line of what it means to be taken as an object of compassion, on the one hand, and enclosed within a cycle defined by social death, on the other.

    Thomas’s essay focuses on the aesthetic experience of blackness in its relation to practices that increase vulnerability, whereby one’s hypervisibility and hyper-invisibility makes blackness the quotidian and the exceptional at the same time. Thomas points out that the aesthetic violence of the blackness makes black bodies hyper-visible as a body to be regarded with suspicion and invisible as morally valuable. He links this with the aesthetic sense of social death. I would add that this social death is aesthetically cast within a network of invisibility versus visibility but is reproduced as a visible-invisible relation that makes violence against the black body appear fragmented to one some, constant to others, and in both cases, the social aesthetics require that the violence itself is disarticulated. Moreover, the production of black vulnerability and white indifference is linked in the Cassandra Complex as a form of aesthetic violence that makes the post-racial context a context through which livability itself is problematic.

    I think that what is remarkable in Thomas’s essay is his insistence on a deeper sense of social aesthetics. The need here is twofold, since it starts not only within the circuit of anti-black violence but would also have to start from the practice of white indifference, and extend into those collective social practices that are complicit with the creation of the conditions of black vulnerability. That is, we need not only social aesthetics broadly speaking, but social aesthetics focused on the interlocking oppressions within race politics, promoting conditions that recast blackness as a state of social death. But then the problem is not general social death, but black social death because it is the social implications of black bodies forged out of a history of violence that is the marker that confirms a set of aesthetic relations and erasures, recognitions and limits to recognition. Much like the way the aesthetic regime of recognition disarticulates blackness, redistributes our regard, and our ability to see racial violence, the Cassandra Complex asks us to think this redistribution anew in the network of limits that shape us and our relation to one another problematically. But here I think I depart from Du Bois—to some extent: where he animates the recognition of what it means to be a problem, I animate the failure forecasted even in raising this question. There is already failure at play in that post-racial discourse does away with the question of the problem as soon as it is articulated, and may in fact be predicated on the articulation itself. The implication here is that the Cassandra Complex is a way to make the limit lay claim to the practices that continue this aesthetic violence in how oppositional discourses appear only to comply with their failure.

    Thomas’s essay provides a sense in which the epistemic and aesthetic are not so far apart as long as we insist upon thinking of the ways in which whiteness reasserts itself. The Cassandra complex was intended to be just such a dynamic framework, but since my focus was on aesthetics, experience, and history, what are Thomas’s thoughts about its implications or challenges epistemologically? In what sense is white criticality both an important solution, but also a further symptom of the being-becoming relationship that continues not only anti-blackness, but the conditions that support the aesthetics of black vulnerability within the circuit of social death?

P. Khalil Saucier


Fantasies of Mourning in Amerikkka


But most of all, don’t mourn . . .

—Dhoruba al-Mujahid Bin Wahad

In the summer of 2016, the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) convened a community remembrance project in order to recognize and remember the victims of lynching in the state of Alabama. The exhibit, which features large glass jars filled with soil collected from lynching sites throughout the state and labeled with the name of each victim (when known), is a visceral and material reckoning of the horrors of lynching in post-slavery America. The bottled soil, along with a detailed map marked with the precise location of each lynching, aesthetically (re)presents that which has been absent. According to the project website, the aim is “to transcend time and . . . bear witness to this history and devastation of these murders.”1 Unlike many other exhibits on lynching, the EJI project replaces the body, or more precisely, the image of the body, for the very thing that bodies decompose into when expired, soil. With almost karmic irony, the soil serves as surrogate, a sign that quantifies the traumatic repetition of black (social) death. In this sense, it is a mournful project that uses the moments of death and the materiality of place—earth, community volunteers, and maps—to confront a void that lays bare the “raw life” of blackness in the South (Sexton and Copeland 2003). Or, does it?

Interestingly, I became aware of the EJI project when I was reading what seemed to be the project’s philosophical companion, The Post-Racial Limits of Memorialization, by Al Frankowski. In some sense, the EJI project operationalizes Frankowski’s theory of mourning. According to Frankowski, memorialization transmogrifies the past and present, for memorials are often grounded in “the empathy of historicism,” meaning the restrained interpretation of historical events, rather than the passion and affect of “the empathy of historical materialism” (59). As a result, Frankowski suggests cultivating a “political sense of mourning,” a process similar to Haile Gerima’s time machine in the film Sankofa (2003), a time machine that allows people to inhabit the past as lived experience rather than as a recounted experience subverted by the state and by extension civil society. If we return to the EJI project for a moment, it is through the procuring of soil as performance, what M. Nourbese Philips might call the important task of “locating the bones,” that one is able to cultivate a form of seeing and feeling that acknowledges the humanity of the sufferer and the (socially) dead (Saunders 2008). Moving “toward a political sense of mourning” is an attempt, first, at communicability and, second, as a way to repossess the past that endures. In other words, pace Walter Benjamin, the past should be grounded in the senses, as a way of “living with and living through” the present (Frankwoski 2015: 108, emphasis in original).

Despite agreeing with his critique that memorialization conceals more than it reveals, I am not convinced that by making the past sensible or working toward a sensible past—which would enable one to transcend time and be present, that is, to bear witness—one is able to resist the seduction of rearticulating the logic of antiblack violence. The reason for my (afro)pessimism, is that both the EJI project and Frankowski, despite their best intentions, remain ensnared in an epistemological structure that takes for granted the importance of presence and as a result they “miss the paradigm for the instance, the example, the incident, the anecdote” (Sexton 2011: 34).

While attentive to antiblack violence, Frankowski does not attend to the onto-epistemological order that enables modern social life. In other words, he does not take seriously the categorical distinction that placed black people “on a rung of the ladder lower than that of all humans” or what Fanon observed as the partitioning of being (Wynter 2003: 301; Fanon 2008). Theoretically, The Post-Racial Limits of Memorialization, despite its antipathy for antiblack violence, continues to work within the “American grammar” that repetitiously ensnares black being “in the originating metaphors of captivity and mutilation” (Spillers 1987: 68). If attention is drawn to the paradigm of antiblackness, where the ontological division between “genres of the human” and people’s individual and collective experiences are differentiated, any sense of mourning not only seems impossible but also fails to ethically confront the very problem of modernity (Saucier and Woods 2015; Wynter 1994 and 2003). The structure of antiblackness destabilizes any attempt at mourning, political or otherwise, for the ontological abjection of black existence is not based on loss, but the condition of being mute and being-for-the captor. Antiblack violence is not merely episodic, but paradigmatic, a conditional requirement for the present. Thus, to call for a political sense of mourning would require an ontological twist, that is, the conflation of species of being without distinction. But antiblack violence is a saturated manifestation of violence, saturated in the sense that it is “being itself,” which resists first and foremost any possibility for memorialization and as a result any possibility for mourning (Douglass and Wilderson 2013: 121). Simply put, no social relation to the world means no mourning.

To this end, the idea of mourning in The Post-Racial Limits of Memorialization is fundamentally organized around two problems. On the one hand, specifying a movement “toward” suggests a social velocity and movement in relation to something. It also fundamentally suggests time and place. Yet, blackness cannot be linked to a singular unit of time, there is no time of slavery to mourn. Blackness, which is also to say the slave relation, lacks temporality (Wilderson III 2010). If anything, its rhythm is located in “black time” which begs the questions, “Can one mourn what has yet ceased happening?” (Warren 2016; Hartman 2002: 758). And if so, as Christina Sharpe recently asked in In the Wake, “how does one mourn the interminable event?” (2016: 19). Jared Sexton complicates this even further when he suggests, “What if slavery does not die . . . because it is immortal, but rather because it is non-mortal, because it has never lived, at least not in the psychic life of power? What if the source of slavery’s longevity is not its resilience in the face of opposition, but the obscurity of its existence? Not the accumulation of its potential capital, but the illegibility of its grammar?” (Sexton 2010: 15). All this to say, by way of another question, if there are “no temporal or spatial coordinates that mark metaphysical plenitude” how is the transcendence of time, the reaching back in order to create a sensorial shift “that attempts to learn from the philosophy of the oppressed,” possible? (Douglass and Wilderson 2013: 121; Frankowski 2016: 58). A sentient being positioned outside the exchange of social recognition is not born and therefore does not die. Breaching the horizon of social loss therefore is an impossible matter.

On the other hand, even if mourning was possible, what are the prophylactic features that would prohibit any political sense of mourning from becoming another form of ritualized affective labor that fails to bear witness? Saidiya Hartman, In Scenes of Subjection (1997), argues that movements in empathy reinforce the violence inherent in making black bodies into relationless objects. She explains that this move “fails to expand the space of the other but merely places the self in its stead” and she further problematizes a move which necessitates that another “body be positioned in the place of the black body in order to make this suffering visible and intelligible” (Hartman 1997: 20, 19). She convincingly claims that there is a certain aspect of “sadistic pleasure to be derived from the spectacle of sufferance” highlighting that there is a “thin line between witness and spectator” (21, 19). She furthers this claim in another essay when she observes that assuming the sensorial place of the dead, the violated, would simply “attenuate rather than address” (Hartman 2002: 767). The self

As a result, we return once again to “being for the captor,” an “acquisitive” (non)relation that forbids the displacement of self; an existential inertia that fails in differentiating structure from experience and performance (Spillers 1997; Fanon 2008: 128). A political sense of mourning is for an agential exploration, no doubt, that leads many to discover their capacity in relation to blackness, but it does not make legible that blackness-in-itself is the very absence of capacity. If only a political sense of mourning could take the individual moment as an abstraction of the structure we might be better for it. To elicit cognition of the structural antagonism that underwrites the lived black experience, past and present, should be the point of confrontation. In fact, maybe this is what we should mourn, the loss of abstraction, the abstraction of presence in the ways we think and act within post-slavery America.

In the end, I commend Frankowski’s efforts to expose the constraints of memory and the underside of memorialization, but the problem isn’t so much “thinking without reference to antiblack racism” (103), but thinking without the structural antagonism that conditions any fantasy for mourning. We need, rather, to move toward embracing the scandalous possibility of the something else, the end of the world.

Works Cited

Douglass, Patrice, and Frank Wilderson. “The violence of presence: metaphysics in a blackened world.” Black Scholar 43:4 (2013) 117–23.

Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks. New York: Grove, 2008.

Gerima, Haile. Sankofa. Mypheduh Films, 2003.

Hartman, Saidiya V. Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

———. “The Time of Slavery.” South Atlantic Quarterly 101:4 (2002) 757–77.

Saucier, P. Khalil, and Tryon Woods, eds. On Maroonage: An Ethical Confrontation with Antiblackness. Trenton: Africa World, 2015.

Saunders, Patricia. “Defending the Dead, Confronting the Archive: A Conversation with M. NourbeSe Philip.” Small Axe 12:2 (2008) 63–79.

Sexton, Jared. “‘The Curtain of the Sky’: An Introduction.” Critical Sociology 31:1 (2010) 11–24.

———. “The Social Life of Social Death: On Afro-Pessimism and Black Optimism.” InTensions 5:1 (2011).

Sexton, Jared, and Huey Copeland. “Raw Life: An introduction.” Qui Parle 13: 2 (2003) 53–62.

Spillers, Hortense J. “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book.” Diacritics 17: 2 (1987) 65–81.

Warren, Calvin. “Black Time: Slavery, Metaphysics and the Logic of Wellness.” In The Psychic Hold of Slavery: Legacies in American Expressive Culture, edited by Soyica Diggs Colbert et al., 55–68. Rutgers University Press, 2016.

Wilderson, Frank B., III. Red, White & Black: Cinema and the Structure of US Antagonisms. Durham: Duke University Press, 2010.

Wynter, Sylvia. “A Black Studies Manifesto.” Forum NHI: Knowledge for the 21st Century 1:1 (1994) 42–73.

———. “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, After Man, Its Overrepresentation—An argument.” CR: The New Centennial review 3:3 (2003) 257–337.

  • Alfred Frankowski

    Alfred Frankowski


    Fantasy and Post-Racial Complicity

    In P. Khalil Saucier’s “Fantasies of Mourning in Amerikkka,” he relates The Post-Racial Limits of Memorialization to decolonialism and Afro-pessimism. Throughout his essay he applauds the book’s effort to analyze the limits of memorialization, which are articulated as a form of memory that becomes too easily a fantasy of reconciliation rather than a radical reckoning with the presence of anti-black violence, while critiquing the turn toward mourning, which he sees as a repetition of just this kind of fantasy. In reply, I would like to focus on the use of fantasy in his text because I feel fairly certain that between Saucier and myself there could not be a greater difference.

    In book review fashion Saucier’s text briefly covers memory and memorialization, recognition, race realism and philosophical pessimism, leaving very little room for the general themes of The Post-Racial Limits of Memorialization to be left out. His efforts set up the way he problematizes the use of mourning for decolonial ends. Curiously, Saucier’s text achieves this without consideration to post-racial discourse or post-racial violence. Not once does he manage to link post-racial violence with the critique of recognition and not once does he relate it to the development of a political sense of mourning. Did he misread the text in its entirety, forgetting the main part of the title of the book? Is his book review an exercise in the avoidance of post-raciality? Did he think the theme was so negligible that it was not worthy even of mention? In any case, he is silent on the issue and his silence operates in his text regardless of the reasons. That is, post-raciality is muted in his text in quite a unique way, making it is easy to see why Saucier employs a series of misquotes and limp-witted comments, incorrectly characterizing the project as one that “transmogrifies the past and present,” allowing one to “inhabit the past as lived experience rather than as a recounted experience.” The point missed about post-raciality is that it is this context that makes anti-black violence in the present illegible by contextualizing its presentness as something past.1 This is also why my argument is not, as Saucier puts it, that memorialization conceals more than it reveals, but that post-racial discourse is a form of anti-black violence that allows for our practices of oppression and practices of resistance to appear in opposition, aesthetically, while they retain the violence of their context, making memory appear as remembrance and forgetting at the same time, and making the practices appear as a post-racial form of complicity because the mode of challenge is a practice that puts opposition out of play in this context.

    I argue throughout the book that while we are not a post-racial society, post-racial discourse decontextualizes the violence that is operative on black lives. This decontextualization renders memorialization a tool of recognition and erasure at the same time. By arguing for a political sense of mourning I focus on the need for new political practices as opposed to new political forms of representation. This can be seen in how mourning is positioned as being at odds with the practices of grieving. Within the politics of recognition, mourning and grieving are similar. Judith Butler, for instance, achieves exactly this in Precarious Life and Frames of War, where the problem of the limits of grievability reveal the conditions where life becomes unlivable and whereby we must question the conditions under which we live and are framed by cultural violence.2 But this sense of mourning is distinctly what is problematized in my book because anti-black violence is post-racialized. This is why I wrote that “mourning is a practice of responding.”3 It is distinctly not a form of recognition, or a mode of reconciliation. By contrast, a political sense of mourning refocuses us on the need for communal practices that reckon with our collective loss. It is concerned with the way loss is confronted as loss and distinctly not recovered from. This is also why chapters 4 and 5 argue that a political sense of mourning is a relation to the present that is not for the sake of which. A political sense of mourning prefaces the question of how and where we experience loss as our collective loss, a failure that underscores a need to confront the violence that forms us.

    Suacier’s failure to consider the violence of our context is its own example of how, in a post-racial context, resistance can be turned into a form of complicity by attacking a fantasized target. His own formulations are not only hollow, but represent how the regurgitated passages of revolutionaries become their own form of silence, echoing in tones of resistance that are just the preamble to practices that are being configured as a practice of complicity. It is this difference that establishes the severe gap between his review and my book. The Post-Racial Limits of Memorialization troubles over how our agency is stripped from us within a post-racial context, how this is achieved through linking resistance to forms of complicity, and how a crisis of our own complicity emerges within somniferous fantasies of detached thinking, whereas his text gleefully attacks fantasies of his own production, passing them off as “critique” rather than getting to work within the very real contradictions and violences of our context. To my mind problematizing our context means more than running to a series of theories within one or another cannon—but rather the task for us is to bring theory to bear against the context in which our oppression is continued. I think Saucier needs to be accountable not only for the distortions his text peddles as “critique,” but also for the fantasies he produces, since these fantasies reduce decolonialism to the sleepy distance of academic theory, a reduction that is already complicit in retrenching the violence he decries.

    1. See chapter 1, “Post-Racial Memory and the Shadow of Despair,” and chapter 3, “Sorrow as the Longest Memory of Neglect,” in The Post-Racial Limits of Memorialization: Toward a Political Sense of Mourning (Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2015).

    2. In particular, see Judith Butler, “Violence, Mourning, Politics” and “Indefinite Detention,” in Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (New York: Verso, 2004) and “Survivability, Vulnerability, and Affect,” in Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? (New York: Verso, 2009).

    3. See chapter 5, “The Sublime and a Political Sense of Mourning,” in The Post-Racial Limits of Memorialization, 96.

    • Shannon Sullivan

      Shannon Sullivan


      Different forms of pessimism in Frankowski and Saucier?

      In my view, the different forms of pessimism that ground Frankowski’s book and Saucier’s response are key to understanding their disagreements, and I wonder if they would agree with that claim? Frankowski is a racial realist à la Derrick Bell (page xxiii), whose work has significant points of contact with, e.g., Frank Wilderson’s Afro-pessimism and Calvin Warren’s black nihilism but also significant differences. Bell claims that anti-black racism is permanent, and then the question for him becomes not one of abstraction or lack of agency, but how black people can shift concrete strategies for surviving in the inevitable midst of ongoing racism. These strategies likely will seem absurd—why act at all if racism is permanent?—and here the absurdist/existentialist influence of Albert Camus on Bell is apparent. (Here also, on the subject of [non]sense and sensibility, it would be interesting to think more about the aesthetic angle of Frankowski’s book. But I’m not an expert in aesthetics, so let me return to the issue of mourning.) As I read Frankowski, political mourning (as opposed to psychological/individual grieving) isn’t political in the sense of trying to make political (or aesthetic or any other) changes that would eliminate racism. It instead is about “rework[ing] our notion of community so that life could be livable” (page 80). As pessimists, Saucier moves with Afro-pessimism to abstraction (even going as far as to claim that perhaps what we should mourn is our loss of abstraction), while Frankowski moves with Bell to considerations of practice and context. I think this is why Frankowski insists on the importance of confronting the context of post-racial discourse about racism. That is our current context, which has the insidious effect of decontextualizing anti-black violence such that we cannot see it when it happens and we even consider present-day violence against black people to be a sign of progress (page 15). When Saucier claims that we need to recognize the structural antagonism that underwrites black experience, i.e., that underwrites our contemporary context, I could imagine Bell and Frankowski replying, “okay…but then what?” To the Afro-pessimistic reply “embrace the end of the world,” I would then ask, what does that mean in practice? I’m not sure if Frankowski would ask the same question, but for me it is a question that highlights the clash between the abstraction of Afro-pessimism and the emphasis on situation and context in Frankowski’s work.

Lissa Skitolsky


The Politics of Mourning Against Systemic Oppression

A political sense of mourning is not an outcome, a development, or an attunement, but a position one can take up relative to the shifting frameworks of violence we live out. It is one that is not for the sake of any outcome, but intervenes in our productive activities to take up lines of questioning anew.

—Alfred Frankowski, The Post-Racial Limits of Memorialization: Toward a Political Sense of Mourning

You do feel grief-stricken now, but only that you waited so long, that you had to suffer so acutely for three decades before finally finding some relief.

—Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts

One of Frankowski’s strongest claims about the political value of mourning is that it serves to interrupt post-racial representations of antiblack racism and expose the complicity of the discursive domain in whitewashing the continuity and brutality of systemic, state-sanctioned racist oppression. In this way he claims that collective mourning can exert political resistance against post-racial discourse that treats racial oppression as a problem of the past. As he explains:

The violence of post-racial discourse and post-racial memory employs memory and representation to such a great extent that our responses lose all meaning—and yet this makes a political sense of mourning all the more important and dangerous because it is that ability to reconnect with our living experience of a past and of deaths that I have become aware of at a distance. . . . The task of mourning is the process of living with the death within our context. . . . Mourning requires a recasting of what it means to respond to violence now, but also a shattering of both this question and our answers. To respond to is first and foremost to be a taking in. Taking, in a particular sense, allows for that which is shattered to be navigated-through as opposed to being settled, reconciled, or simply represented. (96)

Post-racial discourse reinforces a liberatory narrative of the civil rights struggle in the United States that allows us to represent every police murder of an unarmed black man or woman as an “exception” to the norm of a legal system that is no longer informed by the racist distribution of power and capital. In this way post-racial discourse transforms acts of remembrance into acts of forgetting at the same time.

During the recent vice presidential debate, Mike Pence chided Tim Kaine for Hillary Clinton’s use of the terms “implicit bias” and “institutional racism” that—he asserted—distort and politicize a “tragedy,” as well as demean our police officers. Against the refusal of our politicians to recognize the predictable and systematic and senseless state violence inflicted on African Americans as a matter of policy and judicial procedure, the collective act of mourning for Black Lives registers the traumatic violation of useless violence and our unreconciled relation to the past and present. In Frankowski’s words, this mourning forces “a recasting of what it means to respond to violence now” (viz. it was just an isolated “tragedy”), but also “a shattering of both this question and our answers” (viz. Q: “Why do police continue to shoot unarmed black citizens?” A: “We need new legal reforms”). In this sense, the political act of mourning interrupts the narratives that normalize state violence and exposes the failure of discursive practices to represent or arrest systemic state violence against black citizens.

In her new book The Argonauts, queer theorist Maggie Nelson reserves space for grieving and lament in her account of her marriage with Harry, and specifically in her reflections on the year Harry transitioned to his new gender while she was pregnant with their child. At times the text itself becomes elegiac, and it is felt as a right that Nelson claims, the right to mourn—for others, for oneself, for all others who are targeted for discrimination and exclusion on the basis of discursive representations that conceal, sanction and distort the suffering of those who cannot recognize themselves in these representations. Drawing on Frankowski’s work, I will illustrate that a political sense of mourning is also relevant to queer theory and life, as a way to bear witness to the violence of the sex-gender system even as we find ways of navigating through it. For this reason we should consider the role that post-gender discourse plays in normalizing violence against women and the LGBTQ community. Further, I think Frankowski’s analysis of mourning as resistance suggests that the politics of mourning become acute when entire communities must preemptively mourn for the inevitable loss of more family and friends to violence, targeted on the basis of their association with communities marked by race, gender, ethnicity, class and sex. Here mourning is necessary to register and recognize the fact of social death and the severity of its harm on past and future generations. Expanding on Frankowski’s insights, I will claim that mourning is political for any marginalized population that suffers from social death and from the disavowal of their suffering through the normalization of violence against them. I believe that in the age of Trump the collective act of mourning can serve to disrupt discursive practices that will aim to perpetuate and justify violence against ethnic and racial minorities, women, prisoners and the LGBTQ community.

[A]post-gender discourse and the politics of mourning

The political act of mourning or preemptive mourning amidst conditions of social death serves to interrupt consoling narratives about the racist and heterosexist structures that coerce certain choices, produce certain desires and preclude the possibility of entire forms-of-life. In The Argonauts Nelson makes use of the elegiac to mark the existential compromises that still inform the politics of queer life, and so to mark a certain social death rendered invisible by liberal narratives about the “progress” of gay rights. In her text she struggles against the only terms available to describe her lover’s gendered position, terms that inevitably distort and narrow its meaning:

How to explain—“trans” may work well enough as shorthand, but the quickly developing mainstream narrative it evokes (“born in the wrong body,” necessitating an orthopedic pilgrimage between two fixed destinations) is useless for some—but partially, or even profoundly, useful for others? That for some, “transitioning” may mean leaving one gender entirely behind, while for others—like Harry, who is happy to identify as a butch on T—it doesn’t? I’m not on my way anywhere, Harry sometimes tells inquirers. How to explain, in a culture frantic for resolution, that sometimes the shit stays messy? (52–53)

The history of the civil rights movement in the United States has taught us that seeking resolution for structural oppression through piecemeal legal reforms allows us to disavow the continuity of racist oppression in different forms. There is a similar danger in seeking relief from heterosexist oppression in legal reforms that allow queer citizens to marry and use the bathroom of their choice. For the structure of heterosexist oppression is normalized through language that reifies grammatical categories as ontological truths, thus alienating those who do not recognize themselves in such terms. The heterosexist logic that informs the reigning episteme forces us to alienate ourselves in the effort to name and describe our suffering and its “resolution.” The move to mourning as political practice is made necessary to act out the failure of the discursive, which forces us to question the complicity of the discursive domain itself in the perpetuation of racist and heterosexist oppression.

In his book Frankowski cautions against the liberatory or teleological narrative that informs so much memorialization about past forms of racist oppression in the United States, as this narrative reinforces the post-racial discourse that leads us to dismiss every present incident of police brutality or murder against an African American citizen as an “exception” to the rule of an equal and just society. In other words such narratives lead us into moral blindness to the extremity of state violence in the present. Frankowski suggests that we adopt a racial realism (of the kind introduced by Derrick Bell) in order to counter our tendency to represent a liberatory account of social justice struggles. He also suggests that we adopt a healthy philosophical pessimism in order to counter the teleological reading of history.

The liberatory and teleological narratives about social progress also work to (mis)represent the conditions of queer life, and so reinforce the distorted options for agency that are mis-represented as progressive and redemptive in what I will call post-gender discourse—or the view that when states legalize gay marriage and recognize women’s rights, they have effectively overcome heterosexism and gender oppression. Harry resists this narrative when he insists that by transitioning, he is not “on his way somewhere” to attain his liberation or realize his “true” self; he is not transitioning as a way to reconcile himself with reality or feel “complete.” It is simply a means of navigating through or coping with a system of meaning in which every mode of social appearance is a sort of distortion and every “choice” elicits a form of alienation. In her thoughts about Harry’s transition, Nelson beautifully describes the nature of the compromise that never disappears for those who suffer from the binary system of sex/gender:

You like the changes, but also feel them as a sort of compromise, a wager for visibility, as in your drawing of a ghost who proclaims Without this sheet, I would be invisible. (Visibility makes possible, but it also disciplines: disciplines gender, disciplines genre.) (86)

The horror of being trapped in a system that guarantees our alienation and social death is often lost on those who do not feel this horror. In Nelson’s work, elegiac prose becomes political to the extent that it is an expression of the horror and lament that follows from this alienation that ensures the loss of the many lives we could lead or the premature death of lives that cannot be represented in this system, that cannot be given meaning.

As Nelson makes clear, we should not view those who transition from one gender to another as “solving” a “problem” or attaining “freedom” from oppression. Similarly, as applied to the penal system, we should not view prisoners broken by the system as a mark of the system’s success, of its ability to “reform” dangerous individuals into passive, obedient subjects. Following Frankowski’s lead, I think we need a healthy dose of philosophical pessimism with regard to emancipatory narratives about gender and prison. For these narratives do more than simply distort the experiences of those who suffer from structural oppression; they also produce and re-produce epistemic injustices that reinforce the invisibility of their suffering and thus perpetuate their marginalization. Thus the term “transition” implies the successful process of changing from one state or condition to another, and thus renders invisible the violence suffered that necessitated this “transition” as well as the violence one becomes vulnerable to as a result of this transition. Similarly, the term “criminal justice system” to describe the penal colony implies that we arrest “criminals” in order to restore “justice” in our community, thus obfuscating the racist and classist oppression that leaves entire communities unnaturally vulnerable to arrest and incarceration. Further, this term obfuscates the extra-legal violence inflicted on our prisoner population who suffer from a variety of everyday tortures such as sexual and physical assault, degradation, poor nutrition, substandard medical care, hard restraints, solitary confinement, “psychiatric observation” and unhygienic living conditions. The politics of mourning is not a politics of sacrifice and martyrdom for a revolution that may never occur, but instead a politics of living-with the violence that always precedes and survives the piecemeal reforms that perpetually forestall the revolution. Frankowski has identified a form of political resistance against structural oppression that is operative in multiple communities marginalized on the basis of race, ethnicity, class, ability, gender and sex.

Works Cited

Frankowski, Alfred. The Post-Racial Limits of Memorialization: Toward a Political Sense of Mourning. New York: Lexington, 2015.

Nelson, Maggie. The Argonauts. Minneapolis: Graywolf, 2015.

  • Alfred Frankowski

    Alfred Frankowski


    Cassandra’s Politics as Protest

    In The Post-Racial Limits of Memorializtion I attempted to set the stage for a political sense of mourning. From the outset one of my central questions was whether or not this context could be thought of in terms of its practices regardless of the representations of anti-black violence or repair. The practices of mourning seemed historically embedded in black political life and beyond to such an extent that this anxiety seemed to me to be divergent course of action that departs from the context in which anti-back violence is normalized. One mourns one’s children even before they are born in an anti-black context. Which is just to say that every non-white body that “dreams”1 within this context, embodies the precarity of one’s existence and is peremptorily readied for an unnatural, premature, and violent death.2 Similarly George Yancy points out that “while it is true that we are all similarly dispossessed by death, destined to die due to our finitude, not all of us are socially marked for death.”3 In my comments on Lissa Skitolsky’s “The Politics of Mourning Against Systematic Oppression,” I want to emphasize the coalition between lives marked by violent death that she draws attention to.

    Skitolsky argues that a politics of mourning lays bear the relation of systematic oppression implicit in US forms of violence toward marginalized communities more broadly. She achieves this by focusing on the way the post-raciality and the Cassandra Complex address systematic oppression at the intersections of race/gender violence. She argues that not only the acts taken by the police, the prison, or the state, but the institutions themselves lay bare a visible structure of dispossession whereby futures are already always socially dead. She writes, “I think Frankowski’s analysis of mourning as resistance suggests that the politics of mourning become acute when entire communities must preemptively mourn for the inevitable loss of more family and friends to violence, targeted on the basis of their association with communities marked by race, gender, ethnicity, class and sex. Here mourning is necessary to register and recognize the fact of social death and the severity of its harm on past and future generations.” She points out that mourning is distinctly not about the past. It is also the posing of a question of the livability of the future, a question of a for or an against—and likewise, of what we will pass on or hand down—and what we seek to throw down. By expanding the scope to include raced, classed, and gendered bodies, she amplifies the need for a political mourning, which is not a need to reconcile or reform the present with the past, but a need to pass down a sense of collectively standing against the violence of these institutions itself, no matter how they are reformed. As Judith Butler wrote in relation to the Rodney King trial, “The kind of ‘seeing’ the police enacted, the kind of ‘seeing’ that the jury reenacted, is one in which a further violence is performed by the disavowal and projection of that violent beating.”4 Thus the Cassandra Complex is not simply about the past but about what is being passed down, and what it means to be against the unnaturalness produced in patterns that insist upon the production of and expansion of violent death.

    In the expansion of the critique of our context as a post-gender context it is helpful to see how gender discourse itself employs a sense in which trans-life has become included only to be excluded, and thereby operates as a limit. In her comparison between The Post-Racial Limits of Memorialization and Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, she writes, “As Nelson makes clear, we should not view those who transition from one gender to another as ‘solving’ a ‘problem’ or attaining ‘freedom’ from oppression. Similarly, as applied to the penal system, we should not view prisoners broken by the system as a mark of the system’s success, of its ability to ‘reform’ dangerous individuals into passive, obedient subjects.” The Casandra Complex therefore entails a politics and is itself a politics against the complicity within a post-racial structure.

    The sense of protest in her text can clearly be seen in the insistence of thinking that post-gender violence is intertwined with post-racial violence and vice versa. For example, in the passing of DOMA, public discourse could claim it had advanced toward a position of equal rights along gendered lines. The law could be considered a post-gender moment. The problem of post-gender is not restricted to gender discourse, but reveals the structure through which a politics against the unnaturalness of violent death is located in concert with other bodies, bodies othered, and lives denied. In Kimberle Crenshaw’s “Why We Cannot Celebrate” she argues that while the LGBTQ victory of DOMA is definitely a social achievement, it is gained in opposition to the Voting Rights Act.5 Thus progress in the post-racial and post-gender is really just the marker of how retrenched racial and gendered violence are and the ways in which the discourses appear separate when they are connected.

    Following Skitolsky’s employment of the Cassandra Complex, we need a political sense of multiplicity that is often without a place, much less a representation. In this sense, it is a way of thinking the multiplicity of practices of protest as opposed to representation of political action. By protest I mean that in which one’s being is forged as an against, already before it can be captured as a for. The politics of mourning may not be so much about resistance but rather about the practices that stir the question of justice anew between the systematic institutions and the bodies these institutions oppress.

    1. See George Yancy, “Black Bodies and the Myth of a Post-Racial America,” in Black Bodies, White Gazes: The Continuing Significance of Race in America, 2nd ed. (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017).

    2. See W. E. B. Du Bois, “Of the Passing of the First Born,” in Souls of Black Folk; James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time; and Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me.

    3. Yancy, “Black Bodies and the Myth of a Post-Racial America,” 11.

    4. Judith Butler, “Endagered/Endangering: Schematic Racism and White Paranoia,” In Reading Rodney King / Reading Urban Uprising, ed. R. Gooding-Williams (New York: Routledge, 199), 19–20.

    5. Kimberle Crenshaw et al., “Why We Can’t Celebrate,” The Nation, July 2013,

Shannon Sullivan


The Time of Mourning

Americans do not know how to mourn their past, and this is because they think it is past. It is also because they desperately want it to be past. But what if, as Alfred Frankowski powerfully asks in The Post-Racial Limits of Memorialization, the past is an integral part of the present? In that case, Americans would fundamentally misunderstand the present in which they live. And indeed, as Frankowski charges, Americans do precisely this, and white Americans above all. They do so willfully, even if not always consciously. This is because for white Americans to understand the present would be for them (us) to radically rework our sense of community so that life could be livable for black Americans. And this we white Americans refuse to do.

I will return to the philosophical pessimism that anchors Frankowski’s book, but first I want to elaborate the insightful way that Frankowski both identifies and calls for a radical change to lived temporality. Because it is a way of living time primarily (but not exclusively) characteristic of white America, I will call it “white temporality.” That term might sound abstract, but one shouldn’t be fooled. As Frankowski demonstrates, it plays out in everyday life in very concrete and specific ways. One of the ways that white people maintain personal and institutional systems of white superiority is through their relationship to time and history. By keeping racial violence at bay through a relegation of it to the past, white Americans are able to remember it. We perhaps remember it with sadness; maybe we even grieve on occasion. But on Frankowski’s (2016, xx) use of the terms, remembering and grieving tend to support white brutality and domination. They are individual psychological states that are vastly different from the political form of mourning that our nation desperately needs. This would be a mourning that does not seek to erase or overcome trauma caused by violence, but to live with that trauma as an effect of violence that is still fully present. In contrast to mourning, grief and memory neatly contain violence in past history, and that is how they enable Americans, especially white Americans, to acknowledge the violence of white supremacy and white privilege (when we acknowledge it at all).

Take the example of Emmett Till, whom Frankowski discusses in chapter 4. Many Americans, and even some white Americans, remember the story of Till, a fourteen-year-old African American boy who was killed in Mississippi in 1955 by two white men after allegedly sexually propositioning a twenty-one-year-old white woman. His brutal death, which left his body mutilated beyond recognition, combined with the open casket funeral his mother held for him helped fuel the civil rights movement. At the time of the funeral, as Frankowski (2015, 65) explains, a kind of political mourning took place alongside personal grieving. In particular, Mamie Till’s decision to let the world see what remained of her son’s disfigured face enabled a moment of national and even international recognition of the horrific and systemic violence of anti-black racism taking place in the United States. But the moment passed, and now what we as a nation do is remember Till, not mourn him. As Frankowski demands,

What can Till’s death represent to us other than a past, a tragedy that we do not find our own lives caught in, or a memory that can now be corrected [by a post-racial society]? The problem is not that we do not represent the life and the death, the violence, and our social failure adequately—it is not that at all. The problem is that Emmett Till can only appear publically as something remembered, something distant, something tragic. And as something framed in this way, the memory itself—now post-racialized—which is used to critique and condemn the antiblack violence that enabled his death, silences the recognition of violence in general that informs our own present. (2015, 77–78, italics in original)

Frankowski’s book shows that the tools with which we criticize anti-black violence (in the past) are the very tools that enable anti-black violence to continue (in the present). This is why we are required to remember Till, that is, to treat his life and death as a memory. It has to remain the past, and the best way to ensure that it does is to continue to remember and even to memorialize it, but only as past.

Because Till’s death is remembered as past, the memory of it includes ongoing forgetting, particularly of what is present. The tangled relationship between remembering and forgetting is especially clear in another example discussed by Frankowski in chapter 2. This is “the always already forgotten case of Tulsa, Oklahoma, 1921.” Unlike Till’s death, the so-called Tulsa race riot largely has been forgotten by most of America even though it “was the site of the worst and most destructive acts of antiblack violence in U.S. history” (2015, 30). In less than twenty-four hours, a mob of white people killed approximately three black people and destroyed thirty-five to forty blocks of the black district of Tulsa (2015, 31). While the black people living in the district fought back, they were outgunned and even out-bombed as planes were mobilized to help destroy the black part of the city. When it is mentioned at all, the event typically is referred to as a race riot, which suggests that the black community did something to provoke the white mob, but there has never been a full account or explanation of what that “something” was. For this reason, Frankowski refers to it as a race riot that is more accurately understood as a massacre (2015, 32). This is an event that Americans generally do not remember even though there are people living in Tulsa who were witnesses to it, even though a public monument was built in memory of the event, and even though there have been several lawsuits, books, and documentaries that were generated in the wake of the riot (2015, 33, 39).

Frankowski teaches us that by remembering the 1921 Tulsa race riot as a kind of absence or nonevent, we are engaged in a continual forgetting of our own present. Likewise, by remembering Emmett Till’s death as a horrific tragedy that occurred in 1955, we make our present illegible. This is the present, for example, that includes the fatal shooting of Terence Crutcher in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on September 16, 2016. Crutcher was an unarmed African American man whose car broke down in the middle of the road. He was killed by a police officer as his arms were up in the air. Overhead, police circled in a helicopter filming the encounter, somehow observing from their distant perspective that Crutcher was “a bad dude” (http://home/ Crutcher’s death happened a year after Frankowski’s book was published, but it still prompts us to ask: rather than remember the Tulsa riot and the Till lynching as past, what if we experience them as present? Would that enable us to mourn Terence Crutcher? What would it mean to say that events from 1921 and 1955 are present in 2016 and are intimately related to Crutcher’s death?

I think one answer to the latter question involves considering time geographically or, one might say, archaeologically. For example, rather than think of 1921 on a horizontal line in which we move away from points in the past to the present and then an upcoming future, like this:


19th C  1921    1955    2016

we should try thinking of the past and present (and the future) as layered on top of each other in the same geographical (“vertical”) space. As I write this essay in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 2016, for example, in a meaningful sense I am co-temporally living 1921 and 1955 (and a host of additional times). 1921 and 1955 are still now. Of course much has changed over the last one hundred-ish years: media, fashion, environmental damage, you name it. But those changes haven’t made 1921 or 1955 disappear. They are still here: black people resisting white violence against them are still perceived as race rioters and they still can be killed with impunity if they do something that white people don’t like. Heck, it doesn’t even take that: they can be killed for merely being black and having the misfortune of a stalled-out car or of waiting in a car for a child to return from school. 1955 is now. 1921 is now. 1857—the year of the Dred Scott case, which ruled that black people have no rights that white people must respect—is now. It is 1857 in Charlotte, where Keith Lamont Scott, a black man, was killed by a police officer on September 20, 2016, and in which protests of his death (“riots”) continue. The past is layered with the present (just as our past and present are layered with the future that we are creating). Like blankets of sand that bury but do not destroy what they cover, the present mingles with the past to sediment into what we call “now.”

Thinking of time in this way admittedly sounds strange, and living time in this way likely would make the present seem very odd. And yet this is exactly what Frankowski yearns for us to do. Again and again he calls for us to make strange what seems comfortably and unremarkably familiar. “How strange it should seem,” Frankowski exclaims (2015, xiv), that we have to keep uttering “the repeated sentiment that states that the history of antiblack violence is behind us.” It is as if this mantra keeps chaos at bay and maintains our present as intelligible. But, as Frankowski argues, what we need is instead is to “mak[e] our present increasingly strange” (2015, 43) and “to unlearn or to view as strange those habits that are inflected with meanings born in the violence of our past” (2015, 19).

I describe Frankowski as yearning for this change because of his book’s urgent tone. But its tone also is explicitly pessimistic. Yearning is not the same thing as hope, and Frankowski does not hold out any hope that we will find a way to mourn, rather than merely remember our nation’s history of antiblack racism. He does not believe that there is a way to work through the traumas of our past so that a more hopeful future will emerge. In that way, as Frankowski explains, The Post-Racial Limits of Memorialization “is a book about failures . . . and about the reality of the death of black people in a context and a time that is sympathetic and indifferent to their lives and deaths at the same time” (2015, xii). Frankowski offers no goal of reconciliation, which white people in particular tend to desire. He warns against forms of resistance to injustice, such as building memorials of the past, that further oppression through their very success. He also describes the racism of the United States “as an incurable symptom of a congenital disease” (2015, 106). Not only are we made gravely ill by white superiority and white privilege, but we also are infecting the next generation of Americans as we teach children of all races ways of remembering, forgetting, and memorializing America’s racist history as past.

Frankowski explicitly aligns his book with the racial realism of Derrick Bell by embracing “a form of philosophical pessimism” (Frankowski 2015, xxiii), including the “strong pessimism” developed by Jacqueline Scott (2014). I understand Frankowski’s pessimism also to complement the Afro-pessimism of Frank Wilderson (Wilderson 2010) and the black nihilism of Calvin L. Warren (Warren 2015). Echoing Bell, Frankowski asserts that racism “is not only permanent, but [it also] changes in its orientation, develops relative to society, and is both overt and diffuse at the same time” (2015, xxiii). Holding this view does not necessarily entail a collapse into despair or inaction. What it calls for, in contrast, is a shift in our strategies for living with anti-black racism and white dominance. We might not be able to abolish them, but we can position ourselves so that we are less complicit with those forms of violence.

To do that, Frankowski (2015, 108) argues, we need to work on:

  1. jettisoning the progressive story we Americans typically tell ourselves about racial violence in our country;
  2. realizing that “pragmatic and positivist analysis” of racism is a symptom of our disease, not a cure; and
  3. figuring out how to live with and in this context in which we find ourselves, a context that declares itself to be “post-racial.”

Frankowski may be right that most Americans are not up to this challenge, but we can be grateful to him for showing in unflinching terms what the challenge is.

Works Cited

Frankowski, Alfred. The Post-Racial Limits of Memorialization: Toward a Political Sense of Mourning. Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2015.

Scott, Jacqueline. “Racial Nihilism as Racial Courage: The Potential for Healthier Racial Identities.” Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal 35:1–2 (2014) 297–330.

Warren, Calvin L. “Black Nihilism and the Politics of Hope.” CR: New Centennial Review 15:1 (2015) 215–48.

Wilderson, Frank. Red, White & Black: Cinema and the Structure of U.S. Antagonisms. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010.

  • Alfred Frankowski

    Alfred Frankowski


    Archeology and Architectural Practices of Time

    It is clear from the outset that Sullivan and I share a concern over time, not so much as to its privileged position in philosophy, but over a fussiness of its relation to meaning and the limits it presents. In her essay, “Time of Mourning,” she explores the relation of time and a political sense of mourning to the constructions of whiteness that are layered on top of and at the expense of their relation to the history of anti-black violence. I think that The Post-Racial Limits of Memorialization makes a strong case for understanding how racial violence contextualizes all of us, often in unexpected ways, to this violence. But with Sullivan’s text in mind, I want to explore the way these violences reconstruct, rebuild, and remain in ruins and yet are still effectively relations of time, and relations of mourning.

    If the post-racial is a marker of time, it is that marker where temporalization appears broken, or actively a type of breaking-with. The brokenness in time appears as a practice of hazy-memory that spikes in relation to the history of anti-black violence to the point of a racial amnesia.1 She writes, “One of the ways that white people maintain personal and institutional systems of white superiority is through their relationship to time and history. By keeping racial violence at bay through a relegation of it to the past, white Americans are able to remember it. We perhaps remember it with sadness; maybe we even grieve on occasion.” But we do not think its nearness, we do not catch ourselves in either its time or its space as ours, rather we break with it. She argues, “I think one answer to the latter question involves considering time geographically or, one might say, archaeologically. . . . We should try thinking of the past and present (and the future) as layered on top of each other in the same geographical (‘vertical’) space. . . . Of course much has changed over the last one hundred-ish years: media, fashion, environmental damage, you name it. But those changes haven’t made 1921 or 1955 disappear.” Sullivan argues that by thinking archeologically we are embedded, at least tactically, within a time that cannot escape from us, and whose meaning we must rediscover. But this is also predicated on the way in which time appears as a problem for which it continually moves past, and places into question what exactly is going on with the practice of temporalization that grieves in the hazy present while resisting mourning.

    The practice of temporalization that Sullivan argues for, however, also makes how our racial geography is built and what it is built upon a problem for how we live. Similarly, Alexis Shotwell critically examines the intersections between the racial violence that framed her own geographical locations where she grew up in Boulder, Colorado, and Halifax, Nova Scotia, and her learning to become uncomfortable in the comfort of white spaces by practicing critical memory or unforgetting. In “Unforgetting as a Collective Tactic” she writes,

    In that summer [1990], watching native women, men, and kids blockade roads and bridges, watching the army bring in tanks, I began to have a different or supplemental feeling. I had began to feel that someone had indeed invited me to move into a house—but without mentioning that it wasn’t actually their house they were inviting me to live in with them. And while they lived there they’d been flushing their toilets directly into the basement, sewage saturating the walls, sewing salt in what used to be gardens, shutting the children of the genuine owners in the shed out back, starting campfires in the living room.2

    Shotwell goes on to explain that the tactic of forgetting made the resistance seem crazy. She points out that our shared context—the context of contemporary racialized groups—is shielded from the harshest forms of racism and the white groups both undergo a process of decontextualization that is expressed as forgetting. Her view is similar to Sullivan’s in that it seeks to recover the foundations upon which the breaking with time is predicated on. But unforgetting is not un-building. It is, as she puts it, “a tactic” and as such it seeks to found order within structures that leave only the remains of that which is a fundamental disorder. The archeologist is not really a tactician, if disorder is found it is this disorder that is linked to our living, and moreover, it is our attempted covering that also remains in the process as a present based on that which we continually attempt to cover, and therefore must also be a question of what is seen and what is practiced.

    I recently presented a few papers at conferences that incorporated detailed public accounts of terror lynching. The response from the primarily white audience was strong, but I left questioning what they actually heard. Did they only hear these stories detailing black bodies in pain as a reference to the past, not an attempt to think the present? If they did hear something about the present, was it not framed with white academic detachment intact? Did the presentation itself make it possible for the temporal practices of whiteness to take root? Did the details of lynching allow for an affective affinity that was also a co-creating of distance, of breaking? If I read Sullivan’s essay correctly as arguing for a sense in which a restructuring of the practice of temporalization archeologically as an attempt to base our present on thinking what has been predicated on broken time, then the archeology must also reflect the architectural in that we stand on the creation of new breakages. Sullivan’s archeology returns us to the material relation, to what has been built, to a questioning of what structures us.

    1. See Charles Mills, “White Ignorance,” in Race and Epistemologies of Ignorance, ed. S. Sullivan and N. Tuana (New York: SUNY Press, 2005).

    2. Alexis Shotwell, “Unforgetting as a Collective Tactic,” in White Self-Criticality Beyond Anti-Racism: How Does It Feel to Be a White Problem?, ed. G. Yancy (Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2015), 59.

    • Shannon Sullivan

      Shannon Sullivan


      Unforgetting and Un-Building

      I am intrigued by Frankowski’s phrase in his response that “unforgetting is not un-building,” and I’d like to hear more. I am guessing that unforgetting is not the same thing as remembering for Frankowski, but I also don’t think he means that unforgetting generates or is aligned with political mourning. In other words, is unforgetting part of the pattern of our post-racial times? Even more intriguing is the notion of un-building and what it might look like concretely, materially, architecturally (perhaps also archeologically). Are there different forms of un-building with different material effects? The May 2017 removal of four Confederate monuments in New Orleans, including the prominently placed statue of Robert E. Lee, comes to mind. Would Frankowski count these removals as an un-building? Complicating that question is my uncertainty about whether “un-building” as understood by Frankowski promotes political mourning and community building, in contrast to a remembering of racial injustice that replicates it. In my view, the removal of the statues was a form of un-building that covered over the disorder and trauma of the past-in-the-present–promoting white temporality, we might say–rather than providing order and healing. That is, it was a problematic un-building, even as leaving the monuments in place also would have been problematic. As Frankowski’s pessimism would remind us, there probably isn’t a way to eliminate the trauma and disorder that the monuments celebrated, but in this situation could there have been architectural ways to support communities of caring and healing for the black residents of New Orleans in the midst of that trauma? Would building *more* monuments, e.g., next to the one of Lee with imagery that challenges the Confederacy, be an architectural response preferable to un-building and fewer monuments?