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.