In the midst of uprisings following the gratuitous killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Rayshard Brooks—to say the names of only a few—Calvin Warren’s black nihilism would have us sit with the fundamental question: “How is it going with black being”? This abyssal question is the underside of the demand “Black Lives Matter.” Black nihilism could be understood as grounding the contemporary Movement for Black Lives in a problematic of fundamental ontology that reveals the constitutive foreclosure of Being to blacks. In this way, it challenges those receptive to the demand that Black Lives Matter not fall for the mystifying ruse of (black) humanism’s desire for inclusion into the fold of the human and its security in Being. Warren takes up Martin Heidegger’s understanding of ontological difference—the distinction between Being and beings—not simply to rehearse this decisive intervention in Western thought, but in order to help guide black thought to question the presupposed grammar of ethics, politics, and law. In this process, Warren follows Frantz Fanon in distinguishing Being from existence, where blacks are positioned in an existence without Being (hence Warren’s writing of black being under erasure). However, writing black being under erasure is not simply a performative demonstration of the argument that blacks are foreclosed from Being; rather, it testifies to the grammatical paucity that makes black thought strictly impossible within the World’s horizon. Then again, black nihilism follows in a tradition of black thought that aspires to, in Fanon’s words, the possibility of the impossible.1
In this way, Warren understands black nihilism—in contradistinction to colloquial notions of nihilism, which accompany many receptions of the riots—as a twinned affirmation and negation: the negation of all thought and value(s) that follow from the presupposition of Being; the affirmation of black spirit that anagrammatically precedes and exceeds Being as such. Warren both demonstrates and advocates for the necessity of abandoning the terms that organize our existence, which can only occur through a leap of (or, rather, into) faith in an anagrammatical2 existence with neither Being nor the World. Despite connotations to the contrary, black nihilism is driven by a faith—what I would call black faith3—that an ontological revolution is possible, though only by passing through the impossible. This is not per se a confessional faith in a hypostasized God(head), but a faith in black spirit as that which is anagrammatically testified to in the endurance of black existence in the midst of centuries of onticide (i.e., the primordial murder of black being). Faith in black spirit sows the seeds of the miraculous—the potentiality of the impossible—which can be contemplated and cultivated in a radical divestment that unthinks the terms which organize the (desire for the) World.
In order to fully leap into this abyss of (faith in) black spirit—that is, in order to build a way to (inhabit and become inhabited by) black spirit—one must clear the path that restrains radical black (un)thinking. Warren takes readers through this (necessity of) clearing by tracking the human(/)World’s primal scene of ontological terror and its various sites of reenactment. First, ontological terror is a general, primordial condition of existence without Being. Second, however, with the advent of modern Being through the perverse invention of blackness-as-ontological-slaveness-incarnating-nothingness-as-the-Nothing, the human assumes the security of Being by projecting the primary condition of ontological terror onto blacks through gratuitous violence. Ontological terror thus becomes in modernity the positional condition of black being that secures the human’s capacity for (contingent) freedom and security. Put in the terms of a few of Warren’s key guides—Hortense Spillers, Denise Ferreria da Silva, and Saidiya Hartman—the violent enclosure of the flesh’s4 difference without separability5 in captive black being enables the grammar of self-making6 individuated bodies and their protection by rights. And part of Warren’s contribution is to show how this grammar—and thinking as such—is grounded in the fundamental ontology of Being and its parasitic (and thus perversely impossible) desire to obliterate nothingness as incarnate in the Nothing of black being.
In Ontological Terror: Blackness, Nihilism, Emancipation, Warren tracks this dynamic across (1) “post-”metaphysical continental philosophy (“The Question of Black Being”), (2) antebellum juridical discourse (“Outlawing”), (3) mathematical-scientific thinking (“Scientific Horror”), and (4) fantasy in antebellum illustrated journalism (“Catachrestic Fantasies”). Further, in a manner that could be understood as an ontological elaboration of the second-half of Scenes of Subjection, Warren demonstrates these dynamics through the paradigm of the “free black” in order to further reveal the dehiscence of (ontological) freedom from (juridical) emancipation—and thus the nonevent of emancipation—in how the “free black” remains subjected to the gratuitous violence of ontological terror. In other words, neither emancipation nor rights bring blacks into the human’s security of Being because the human’s condition of possibility is blacks’ condition of ontological impossibility as (the) Nothing—which is perpetually (re)mastered by the entire program of modern thought. In the face of this parasitism, Warren spurs us—blacks and non-blacks alike—to bid adieu to the human (“Coda”) and begin (or continue) the task of unthinking that builds a way to the anagrammatical catastrophe7 of generalizing the flesh of the earth’s landless inhabitation of selfless existence.8 This is to say, in fidelity to the black youth burning property to the ground, black nihilism demands us to burn the very infrastructure of thought to its groundlessness and inhabit this ontological terror without reserve.
Each of our symposium’s respondents raise questions regarding the scope and/or limits to black nihilism’s vision. In Jared Sexton’s response, he first observes that, more than anything else, Ontological Terror elaborates and places on firmer ground many of Afropessimism’s fundamental premises. Among these, Sexton lauds how, after Ontological Terror, the analysis of blacks’ singular positionality in both the ontological and libidinal economies of Being and the World can no longer be questioned without regressing into a hallucinatory humanism. Even so, Sexton raises some subtle yet decisive questions that concern the non/coincidence of Afropessimism and black nihilism. The nature of these questions concerns the degree to which these discourses go with regard to both a diagnostic condemnation of the state of things—i.e., whether the terms of engagement (e.g., the World) are to be preserved and judged absolutely as irredeemable, or whether they are to be disposed with altogether—and the accompanying status of prescription: i.e., whether any kind of imperative should accompany such an analytic (which itself becomes a meta-question of imperative). In particular, as it concerns the former, Sexton asks what is meant by the “end of the World” in back nihilism, considering that, for Sexton, neither is all life reducible to human life nor is the World reducible to the earth.
In Amaryah Shaye Armstrong’s response, her question follows from what Sexton identifies as black nihilism’s prescriptive gesture: how does black nihilism account for the flesh’s endurance? More precisely, Armstrong raises this question in light of Warren’s argument that Being obliterates the flesh. On a related note, as a part of a broader theological inquiry into the latent (a)theological critique in Ontological Terror, Armstrong also asks how the (black) spirit relates to the (black’s) flesh, considering the (racialized) legacy of supersessionism that seizes on the former’s supposed transcendence of the latter. Yet, even with these critical inquiries, Armstrong observes the essential contribution Ontological Terror makes to Black Study: radicalizing the unrelenting unthinking and refusal of, as Fred Moten would say, that which has been constitutively refused to blacks—beginning with the human and its economy of (re/producing) value(s).
In Amber Jamilla Musser’s response, she contemplates how a relational conception of Being opens unto a different modality of freedom that Musser considers to already exist in the (female) flesh. This line of thought advances a black feminist epistemology of sociality that follows from a dynamical (rather than static/inert) understanding of blackness-as-tool/thing. Further, Musser’s response raises a more general asymptotic fissure in Black Study that follows from divergent readings of Hortense Spillers’s “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe” over the question of the captive (female) flesh’s potentiality. In a similar vein, though not explicitly articulated as such, Musser’s response could be understood as expressive of an overlapping asymptotic aporia in Black Study: even if there is no relation(ality) between blacks and (static conceptions of) Being, is there a modality of relation (and being) within the black intramural? And following Musser’s affirmation of such a modality, she expresses an attendant conviction in the potential generalization of this para-epistemology of being-with-the-flesh concurrent with (static) Being’s overrepresentation9 of itself in anti-black-hetero-patriarchy.
Finally, in a related vein, Tryon P. Woods’s response raises the question of the relationship between (continental) theory and (black radical) praxis. He wonders what service engaging with Heidegger’s philosophy offers in relationship to the rich alternative of black ontologies and epistemologies that are available in the black radical archive. Further, Woods questions how, in his eyes, Ontological Terror follows the (North American) Academy’s economic incentivization of studies that serve to reproduce its own Eurocentric archive. Accordingly, Woods is left asking what (black) nihilism offers to the black radical tradition that the latter’s archive does not already provide—especially as it concerns the question of praxis.
Perhaps the questions our respondents raise to Warren’s black nihilism in Ontological Terror could be condensed in a manner that bring us back to Sexton’s and Armstrong’s concerns with prescribing (and) endurance following from Musser’s and Woods’s affirmations of dynamic (relational) praxis: as Sexton raises elsewhere,10 is there such a thing as radical passivity in Black Study? If so, what are its protocols? And how does it deform and/or transform the demands of action? Whatever one may “answer,” black nihilism guides readers to (un)ask (restraining) questions and help build a way to inhabiting the “position of the unthought.”11
Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, trans. Richard Philcox (Grove Press, 2008), 193.↩
Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (Duke University Press, 2016).↩
Andrew Santana Kaplan, “Notes toward (Inhabiting) the Black Messianic in Afro-Pessimism’s Apocalyptic Thought,” Comparatist 43.1 (October 2019) 84–85, doi:10.1353/com.2019.0004.↩
Hortense J. Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” Diacritics 17.2 (1987) 64–81, doi:10.2307/464747.↩
Denise Ferreira Da Silva, “On Difference Without Separability,” In Incerteza Viva: Catalogue, edited by Jochen Volz et al. (Fundaçao Bienal De São Paulo, 2016), 57–65.↩
Saidiya V. Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (Oxford University Press, 1997).↩
Calvin Warren “The Catastrophe,” Qui Parle 28.2 (December 2019) 353–72, doi:10.1215/10418385-7861859.↩
Jared Sexton, “The Vel of Slavery: Tracking the Figure of the Unsovereign,” Critical Sociology 42.4–5 (2014) 583–97, doi:10.1177/0896920514552535.↩
Sylvia Wynter, “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, doi:10.1353/ncr.2004.0015.↩
Jared Sexton and Daniel Colucciello Barber, “On Black Negativity, or the Affirmation of Nothing: Jared Sexton, Interviewed by Daniel Barber,” Society & Space, September18, 2017, www.societyandspace.org/articles/on-black-negativity-or-the-affirmation-of-nothing.↩
Saidiya V. Hartman and Frank B. Wilderson III, “The Position of the Unthought,” Qui Parle 13.2 (2003) 183–201, doi:10.1215/quiparle.13.2.183.↩
A Black Question for Black Nihilism: On the Endurance of the Flesh
A few years ago, I was a teaching assistant for a graduate course in Reformation History. While the class could have solely been an exercise in rehearsing a stale journey through standard Reformation texts, the professor I was assisting made efforts to bring questions of race to the fore, particularly in thinking about colonialism and Bartolome de las Casas’s debates in defense of the humanity of Native people in the New World. A difficulty emerged in the course, though, as I led a seminar group in reading las Casas. A black student of mine posed the question, “How was it that las Casas was able to see and defend the humanity of Natives while recommending black Africans for slavery?” I admitted that the question he posed was one I also kept returning to. I found myself somewhat at a loss in the face of such a question, not because I was exposed as not having an answer, but because of how terrifying it can be to break the protocol of humanistic study and answer the question with the fact that, for the West, blacks did not (and, Warren argues, still do not) belong to the Western invention of the human. In the wake of questions like this, I have seen several strategies. One is to point to how las Casas later changed his mind about black slaves, and came to their defense, too, showing how black humanity is real and Europeans were simply unable to see it. But what Calvin Warren’s timely book highlights is that this rush to narrate Las Casas’s progressive identity and recover a black humanism is a refusal to think with the abyss, the ontological terror, that blackness opens up as a problem for Western thought and the human. Why the fear to confront what it means that there is such a delay between the invention of racial slavery and emancipation, and that emancipation has not been adequate to black freedom? Questioning the assumed value of the human for black studies, Warren invites readers to learn to develop more adequate pedagogies for the ontological terror that the questioning of the human being by blackness entails.
I resonate with Warren’s sense that his students demand a genuine wrestling with blackness’ situation as a problem in an antiblack world. To invest in a narrative of black overcoming and attainment of humanity or a post-human deferral of the question of black non-humanity is to avoid a crucial part of the ethical instruction that black study attempts to name. Warren carefully takes readers through the various mechanisms that work to reproduce antiblackness (and reproduction is a question I will return to later): philosophy, law, science and math, and visuality. Along the way, he continuously drives home the point that narratives of black progress and black reclamation of humanity are woefully inadequate to the condition of black existence as an object that incarnates nothingness for the antiblack world. As a scholar working with theological materials, I am curious as to what Warren understands as crucial, or not, about engaging theology as a way into surveying this ontological terror? Warren’s reading the question of Being with Heidegger can easily bring the question of ontotheology to the fore. But, more than this Heideggerean sense of ontotheology, black studies has often played with an unspoken engagement in the theological that Warren frequently notes and gestures toward. Thus, it is not difficult to find a recurring sense in Warren’s text that there is something theological about the invention of the antiblack world and I’m curious what Warren thinks that is? Even in the analysis of antiblackness, blackness incarnates ontological nothingness, it is transubstantiated, all in service of a redemptive history of Being. I wonder, then, about reading the theological sense of these terms. I don’t mean this in an overdetermining sense, as though Christian theology is the key to unlocking the problematic Warren names (and thus overcoming it). But rather, as a way of gaining greater clarity about the operations of antiblackness and the ontological order it establishes. In so doing, perhaps we gain a more precise view of the ontological terror that blackness portends and the glory of sovereignty that depends on its nothingness. Moreover, Warren’s conclusion gestures to the spirit as enduring, rather than overcoming, antiblackness. He posits this endurance as a non-ontological way forward for black thought. Citing Ashon Crawley’s inventive Blackpentecostal Breath as akin to the kind of work that is disinvested from Western metaphysics, Warren seems to gesture at material that exceeds the Western philosophical and theological traditions of thought, but still, perhaps, are creative repurposing of material that has gone under the name of “theology” for otherwise purposes.
In thinking with the theological sensibilities of blackness and what some might call the a/theological sensibilities of black study, I am especially drawn to Warren’s insights that a disinvestment is in order not only from the human, but from the procedure of questioning that Western metaphysics employs to produce meaning and value. Theology also seems important as a discourse that evaluates that ultimate value of human existence in the West, but which black theology has attempted to employ to give meaning and value to black existence. Still, I remain concerned about how a black nihilism can become and overdetermining narrative, not because of its refusal of the human, but because it can too easily posit a sense of certainty regarding what meaninglessness and nothingness means. That is, because Warren’s text is less an inquiry into blackness as nothingness than an inquiry into how blackness is produced as nothingness by Western ontology, some slippage in audience seems to occur. For, there are a host of scholars who are indifferent to the question of the human, who attempt to think blackness according to blackness rather than according to Western ontology. Yet Warren takes aim primarily at scholars invested in reproducing a claim to the human for black existence, or extending the value of Western Being through post-humanist claims. This is important work, and I don’t think I can understate how much I appreciate the incisive and at times polemical tone of the book. But I also found this nihilistic mood can at times be a difficult tightrope to walk, which is the risk that all important thinking requires.
At times, Warren appears to naturalize antiblackness, the figuration of blackness as nothingness, as death, etc., rather than more precisely parsing out how this is the way things are because the apparatus of Western reason makes things be this way. For instance, while I think Warren is right to warn against a humanism that seeks to convert the flesh into an embodiment of freedom, at times his book appears to narrate the flesh as dead or obliterated, which, in my view, would be to say too much regarding blackness as nothingness. It seems to me that understanding the flesh as obliterated misstates how the antiblack world reproduces blackness as nothingness. It seems important for the sake of precision not to read the production of blackness as nothingness in Western metaphysics as completed. Spillers invocation of the flesh as captive flesh is instructive but also at odds with Warren’s sense of obliterated flesh. Spillers seems to communicate a literality of the flesh, the literal woundings and rendings of black flesh under capture, as those hieroglyphics to think with. It is not only a thinking through that which is totally lost under conditions of enslavement and its economy, but a thinking through what remains. How does one read what remains given Warren’s argument that the flesh is obliterated? Here, my point is not that Warren misreads Spillers as much as I think he does not adequately distinguish how he is extending her analytic. As such, I find it difficult to track how his sense of obliterated flesh is adequate to the flesh’s remembrance in black study.
My confusion was extended by Warren’s turn to the spirit as a non-ontological alternative given the spirit’s fraught relationship to flesh in Western theology. In particular, Western governance of the flesh has been legitimated through the invocation of the spirit and the higher reality that confirms Western Being and the order of things that places the flesh under the sovereignty of the spirit. How is it that Warren sees the spirit as remaining in the wake of this sense of obliterated flesh without it being an echo of Western theological hierarchies of the spirit over the flesh? He cites Ashon Crawley’s Blackpentecostal Breath as a guide for this turn but that just created more confusion to me about Warren’s decision to understand the antiblack treatment of the flesh primarily in terms of obliteration, death, and loss. On my reading, Crawley understands the flesh as enduring—as that which cannot be represented by Western theological and philosophical thought. What remains is a sense of the flesh that breath communicates. A sense of the flesh’s affectability which is both the availability of the flesh to violation and the possibility of otherwise practices of thought. The sense of spirit that Crawley articulates, then, rests on—is an exhalation of, against, and exceeding—the ghostly sensations and haptics that haunt the flesh which remains enduring in the practice of “being together.”
And here is where I think a reproductive analytic would greatly clarify Warren’s critique and, at the same time, disallow a nihilistic narrative from overdetermining the terms of enunciation regarding the flesh. In trying to communicate the force of violation that attends antiblackness, there can be a tendency to lean heavily on the spectacular senses and images of death, obliteration, holocaust, etc. But, as my friend Anthony Paul Smith recently said, death is also a story in Western ontology. As the underside of the redemptive machine of Western ontology, death, nothingness, and the theo-logics of sacrifice continue to preserve thinking blackness according to Western Being. The shift of attention that scholars like Spillers provide reveals how the spectacular force of those images can dull our attention to how antiblackness is reproduced as a given at the level of the intimate and the economic (by which I mean the order and distribution of things).
On my thinking, if Being is that which endures in standing out from nothingness, then black flesh (which incarnates the nothingness that Being stands out against), must also be enduring, rather than obliterated. The existence of captive flesh is precisely what ensures the reproduction of Being. The claim that the flesh is obliterated by the procedure Being’s unfolding thus seems imprecise to the reproductive technology that is Western ontology even as obliteration here seems to be an attempt to communicate the force of loss with which antiblackness is felt and which demands an account. Here a claim of blackness as a condition of social and ontological death and nothingness seems to run into a need to be subject to this black procedure of questioning. Indeed, the carceral economy that today makes antiblackness enduring seems precisely to be the production of a sense of completeness to antiblackness in order to obfuscate its vampiric mode of reproduction. This is not me handwringing over Afro-Pessimism creating despair. Rather, it’s a question of precision and explanatory power. To make its claims of enduring Being work, Western Being has to be made over and over, but this entails the repeated use, not the total obliteration, of the flesh—and this seems to be the unspoken procedure according to which Western Being operates. If Warren agrees that the flesh endures, it is unclear why the choice to narrate it in terms of obliteration, total loss, death, etc. If Warren disagrees and does think the flesh is actually obliterated in the Western reproduction of Being, it is unclear how the turn to the spirit at the end is not a nihilistic supersession of the flesh by the spirit’s endurance. And if endurance is the new value for black study, how does that think blackness on its own terms rather than the terms of Being set out by Western ontology? Is the point here that the flesh remains under concealment but cannot emerge as Being without being subject to obliteration and so the concealed flesh is the source of the spirit’s endurance? Here, I would appreciate a greater parsing out of this sense of the flesh’s obliteration as, to my mind, positing endurance as a measure of spirit continues the circuit of Western Being that Warren is committed to disinvesting from.
To be clear, my questions and confusions are not a mark of the book’s failure, as much as a sign of its generativity. Reading with Warren highlights the deeply felt practice of black thinking. His analysis provides a helpful practice in tracking one’s responses to arguments, becoming more curious about why the reaction to certain turns of phrase and articulations about blackness, which is revealing in itself of a place to commence study. Warren’s work is to be applauded as it makes us slower readers, better students, and more attentive to all that remains to be studied regarding the flesh—what it means to think with in black terms. It is only through such a practice of critically reflective, slow, and urgent thought that we can practice thinking more adequately to the mystery of black existence. And it is precisely the need to make our thought more adequate to black existence that leaves me with the questions I have posed here. Thinking with the literality of the flesh and it’s wounding requires taking seriously the flesh that is lost, and Warren’s text articulates this demand with a clarity that is deeply felt. But taking the literality of the flesh and its wounding seriously also issues a demand from the flesh that remains, that carries the scars, the hauntings, and the joy of black existence. The human is inadequate to the hieroglyphics of the flesh that black study attends to. The challenge of black study, then, is to respond to the double demands that the flesh issues. How to make one’s thought adequate to this doubly felt force? Warren’s black nihilism ushers us into this challenging practice of study with a host of necessary questions and incites the best of our questions in return.
Dysfunctional Blackness: Toward Being-with and Relational Freedom
In Ontological Terror, one of the key dynamics that Calvin Warren explores is the non-relation between blackness and Being. Black being emerges as pure function, the antithesis of Being. Warren elaborates, “The function of black(ness) is to give form to a terrifying formlessness (nothing). Being claims function as its property (all functions rely on Being, according to this logic, for philosophical presentation), but the aim of black nihilism is to expose the unbridgeable rift between Being and function for blackness.”1 The premise of Warren’s argument is that the framing of the question of Being has elided the possibility of black Being such that blackness exists contra to Being. This results in an anti-black dynamic that produces blackness as a being-for, which is to say, blackness exists in a similar realm as the tool and Thing. Much of the book unfolds the consequences of this recategorization, one of the most important being the impossibility of the free black. Warren writes, “In this analysis, metaphysics can never provide freedom or humanity for blacks, since it is the objectification, domination, and extermination of blacks that keep the metaphysical world intact. Metaphysics uses blacks to maintain a sense of security and to sustain the fantasy of triumph—the triumph over the nothing that limits human freedom.”2
However, tools and Things are complex entities; while we may assume that they do not occupy the same tier of being as Being, they do produce effects and sociality. In describing the ways that tools/Things produce social worlds, Robin Bernstein emphasizes the ways in which they solicit particular behaviors: “However, things also literally shape human behaviors. . . . Things invite us to dance, and when we sweep them onto the dance floor, they appear to become animate.”3 For Bernstein the Thing’s ability to enact constraints is its own form of power. In thinking with blackness and Thingness, then, there are multiple ways to engage with these possibilities. In my recent book, Sensual Excess: Queer Femininity and Brown Jouissance, I take up the epistemological shifts that occur when one engages through Thingness, but here, in response to Ontological Terror, I dwell on the relational freedom produced between Being and Thing.4 This dynamic, as we see with Bernstein, is not necessarily one of straightforward being-for but it opens the world of being-with.
While Heidegger explores being-with or mitsein extensively, I linger here with Simone de Beauvoir’s conceptualization of mitsein because it explicitly theorizes being-with in a field of unequal power relations produced by heteropatriarchy. Building on her arguments in The Ethics of Ambiguity that freedom for one is only possible when the Other is free, Beauvoir proffers mitsein as a critical framework for grappling with the possibility of transcendence for women who have been rendered objects and other in heteropatriarchy. Following Eva Gothlin, I suggest that we understand mitsein as “express[ing] simply the fact that human reality is a being-with, even if not a being-one but being-many.”5 This reorientation of being is, in turn, important not only because it folds in forms of being that are situated differently within fields of power, but because it offers a different, more complex, perspective on freedom. Instead of the idea of an unqualified freedom that comes with Being and recognition, which Warren argues is impossible vis-à-vis blackness, mitsein offers a form of relational freedom.
We can sense the particular qualities of this relational freedom in Beauvoir’s turn to the erotic as a way to grapple with the problem of heteropatriarchy. Beauvoir uses the erotic as a way to think with freedom precisely because it discloses its dynamic quality (which is to say it is found through doing) and the self’s situatedness within a dense network of power relations, which reveal the self’s simultaneous status as object and other. Beauvoir writes, “The erotic experience is one that most poignantly discloses to human beings the ambiguity of their condition; in that they are aware of themselves as flesh and as spirit, as other and as subject.”6 In this way, Beauvoir views the erotic as a form of embodied, fleshy being-with that allows women to work through their situations as objects and selves. In this relational embrace of objecthood, the ensuing oscillations between self/other/object ripple through the encounter. The erotic makes everyone (not just women) aware of the ambiguity of their own existence because of its mobilization of self as flesh and object. In this shared vulnerability, a mutual and dynamic freedom is realized. This relational freedom is important because it illuminates the difference between being-for and being-with. While being-for confers an ontological status mired in stasis, being-with’s relationality makes us aware of being as an action, a shift that alters the framework of freedom and other possibilities.7
In Ontological Terror, freedom is taken to be static, and beyond the black’s purview. Through Warren’s description of the ruse of freedom and the perpetual performance of emancipation, we see that the negotiation from object (the enslaved as commodity) to free black is never complete. Indeed, its presumed stabilization through papers and law give lie to its impossibility: “The time of emancipation, then, is uncertain. The free black never obtains freedom because emancipation simply transfers property rights to the state.”8 From this, Warren argues not only that the free black is a paradox but that the black does not have access to being (or becoming, which is being’s unfolding) because of this temporal stuckness. However, Beauvoir’s description of the oscillations between self/object/other that the erotic produces allows us to think through the dynamism at work in freedom. This is because the erotic does not indicate a founding moment of subjecthood, but instead a process during which / through which relational freedom is possible precisely because it activates these oscillations between self/object/other. Thinking with freedom as mutually produced means that neither the domination of others nor the acquiescence to a set of impossible terms is going to lead toward freedom. What is important about Beauvoir’s move toward this dynamic mitsein is that it punctures systems of domination which prefer stasis and proffers alternate epistemologies for freedom and being.9
Further, it is critical that these new epistemologies speak through other means—we might move beyond Beauvoir to think about the aesthetic as another important venue for activating dynamic relationalities and possibilities. But, I conclude by resting with the question of femininity and fleshiness because it is through and beyond a body’s enmeshment in various systems of domination that the relational freedoms offered by mitsein emerge. Here, there important connections to Hortense Spillers’ discussion of both the pornotrope and the type of thinking required to move beyond it. Even as Spillers describes the production of flesh through the violence of projection and exploitation, she reminds us of the importance of re-finding ways of speaking and systems of knowledge that are not stuck in the territory of being-for. At the conclusion of that essay, she writes: “Therefore the female, in this order of things, breaks in upon the imagination with a forcefulness that marks both a denial and an ‘illegitimacy.’ . . . It is the heritage of the mother that the African-American male must regain as an aspect of his own personhood—the power of ‘yes’ to the ‘female’ within.”10 Spillers’s injunction to break our imagination by thinking with the female means taking up questions of the flesh as offering modes of relationality that reveal the ambiguity of being through pleasure, objectification, and the freedom that emerges through enmeshment. This rethinking blends ontology and epistemology together to produce something else; perhaps related to Fred Moten’s notion of the blur and injunction to “consent not to being a single being.”11
This something else, I offer, is related to Warren’s request that “Black thinking, then, must explore what existence without Being entails.”12 This relational being—mitsein—and its production through the body does not produce Being as something that one occupies, but as something emergent through relation. It is true that my more utopian impulse finds routes toward privileging the relation by thinking with the mother and femininity and outside of the existent quagmire regarding recognition, but I am curious what thinking we might gain from engaging with mitsein and its relational freedom. Even as it might not break the prevailing structures of anti-blackness (or heteropatriachy), if we shift our perspective we might find other orientations and other routes through.
Calvin Warren Ontological Terror: Blackness, Nihilism, and Emancipation (Duke University Press, 2018), 5–6.↩
Warren, Ontological Terror, 6.↩
Robin Bernstein, “Dances with Things: Material Culture and the Performance of Race,” Social Text 27.4 (2009) 67–94; 70.↩
Amber Jamilla Musser, Sensual Excess: Queer Femininity and Brown Jouissance (NYU Press, 2018).↩
Eva Gothlin, “Reading Simone de Beauvoir with Martin Heidegger,” in The Cambridge Companion to Simone de Beauvoir, ed. Claudia Card (Cambridge University Press, 2003), 58.↩
Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, trans. H. M. Parshley (New York: Vintage, 1989), 399.↩
I am indebted to Maureen Catbagan for astutely specifying that the difference between being-for and being-with is one of stasis vs. dynamism. An important conceptual shift that not only alters the notion of “being,” as a capacity for movement rather than a static spectrum of privilege and oppression. She proposes that in this state of being, freedom becomes forms of movements rather than parameters of choices. In this way, freedom via relational combinations offers varied means of potential punctures against oppressive social structures.↩
Warren, Ontological Terror, 96.↩
For a careful reading of the difference between Hegel’s dialectic and that of Fanon, see Lou Turner, “On the Difference between the Hegelian and Fanonian Dialectic of Lordship and Bondage,” Fanon: A Critical Reader, ed. Lewis T. Gordon et al. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996), 134–51.↩
Hortense Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book” Diacritics 17.2 (Summer 1987) 64–81; 80.↩
Fred Moten, Consent Not to Be a Single Being (trilogy) (Duke University Press, 2017/2018).↩
Warren, Ontological Terror, 19.↩
Existence in Fire
How to unwind the epistemological violence of slaveholding while slaveholding culture is still in effect? After having studied Calvin Warren’s outstanding book, my engagement with this question reached a new level of understanding. Which is to say, the way out is no less clear, but the heights that must be scaled are more discernible thanks to Ontological Terror’s unflinching confrontation with its topic.
Warren’s interrogation of how philosophy epistemically buttresses the violence of slaveholding is a call to arms. Although black people have long been slapped with the label “nihilistic” as a way of defusing self-determination and pathologizing existence under racial regime, Warren demonstrates the potential of turning nihilism against itself—meaning, wielding it against both the antiblack world and the philosophical discourses that arise to explain this state of affairs. When I consider how the post-Civil Rights academy remains disciplined in an unproductive “anti-essentialism,” Warren’s commitment to reveal essence “in its truth” reads boldly (64). Warren argues that the essence of politics is not political; of law is not legal; and of science is not scientific (54, 73, 115). Rather, it is ontological.
I found three trenchant observations from Ontological Terror especially useful for my own ongoing work. I spend a lot of time deemphasizing law and criminal justice apparatus in the analysis of the police power. From a discussion of the Supreme Court’s 1857 decision in Scott v. Sandford, comes this insight: “Each refusal to see black injury or to present black grief expands the prerogative and rights of the legal subject” (81). As Warren explains it, our conception of jurisdiction necessarily deepens to include how non-black standing is aggrandized precisely through the capacity to not be injured gratuitously. Related to this is the discussion about Dr. Benjamin Rush, the so-called father of American psychiatry, and his proposition to do away with the problem of black being-under-erasure by literally rubbing away black skin, to reveal what he believed was the underlying “natural” white color of humans. Warren notes that “Rush’s solution is a sign of philosophical desperation, since he finds it impossible to transform an antiblack world” (121). This observation speaks to numerous political projects afoot today, from electoral politics to prison abolition, that opt to scrub the patina of “justice,” shy of a full force confrontation with antiblackness. Equally suitable for theoretical travel among today’s array of topics is the discussion of the census fantasy of 1840 wherein census marshals recorded white insane patients as black. Warren’s analysis here is brilliant and will be helpful to anyone trying to confront the fluid tropes of black dangerousness, their confluence with the constructs of scientific reasoning and technocratic rationality, and the “dizzying tautology” of antiblackness (137).
While these moments, among others, in Ontological Terror fortify us in confronting the dilemma of how to unravel slaveholding culture midstream, as it were, other aspects of Warren’s study raise questions for me. Given the insidious manner in which global society appropriates black culture willy-nilly for its own purposes, I think it wise for practitioners of black thought to be careful, rigorous, and explicit in locating how their work advances, or not, the black studies tradition. This is something that Warren does not do. Black philosophical treatments of racial regime are extensive and varied, and although Ontological Terror stands out in this lineage for its embrace of nihilism’s philosophic doctrine, it is unclear where Warren fits his study into the larger tradition. Delineating the connections would be useful, especially given the many philosophical and theoretical insights in black studies orbiting around Ontological Terror: W. E. B. Du Bois’s definitive concept of double-consciousness; Sylvia Wynter’s call to relativize Man; Lewis Gordon’s critique that feeling is construed as black and theory as white; and Jared Sexton’s suggestion, remixing Gordon, that all thinking, insofar as it is genuine thinking, is properly conceived of as black thought. What does nihilism do for Warren that others are not doing?
If blackness is theory itself, and all genuinely critical inquiries aspire to black studies, as Sexton puts it, then where does that leave a study of ontological terror that relies most heavily on a European intellectual tradition?1 Is Heidegger black, in the manner that Sexton might suggest that all animals are black and that Gordon says the only race is black?2 I don’t think so. Warren repeatedly notes that “the Negro is the missing element in Heidegger’s thinking,” and so too for Nancy, Agamben, Badiou, and Vattimo—so why rely so heavily on this tradition for Ontological Terror’s methods (8)? Warren also explains that “we cannot escape Heidegger because we cannot escape the question of Being” pervasive throughout the social order of slaveholding—fine, we are our enemies, especially after over a millennium of antiblack violence, so we need to closely track how Heidegger & Co. think to better understand ourselves (8). But black studies’ entire raison d’être is that Eurocentric thought will not provide the way out. There is no shortage of black studies scholarship, mind you, that relies on the Heideggers, Agambens, Foucaults, Arendts, Lacans, Marxs, and so on and so forth, but for this reader, at the end of the day, what Heidegger is good for here is remunerating the author’s career in the Western academy. Ontological Terror may be contributing to the problem wherein the multicultural academy will include black people before it will deal with black thought that stands for itself. Or, to put it differently: the critique fortifies the institutional life of the discourse.
All of the above noted European theorists have been dispatched by black studies on the grounds that their theoretical scaffolding is incapable of unthinking antiblackness, so let me follow suit and observe some of the ways that Warren’s reliance on Heidegger underserves black thought. Warren writes, “Unlike Heidegger, nothing is not a cause for celebration in my analysis; it is the source of terror, violence, and domination for blacks” (9). But what is “nothing” in this historical and cultural context, really? Whites (and non-blacks generally) are the source of terror for black people. Is not “nothing,” then, properly understood as the source of terror for whites, which they displace onto the figure of blackness to comfort themselves? “Nothing” refracts a collective spiritual emptiness in white people, forfeited across the generations of slaveholding, which spawns a compulsion to flee this cultural void. This escape manifests as white people’s obsession with an individualism exclusively their own, on the one hand, and with dreams of a collective pathos exclusive to blacks, on the other hand. In this sense, then, “nothing” is self-referential, as with all racism and dominance: it is the manner in which whites understand their own predatory ways. “Nothing,” therefore, is not the fount of terror for blacks, but black people simply encounter it in the world as a disavowed rationalization for violence. At any rate, this would be a historical materialist understanding of the “nothing” to which Heidegger and Warren refer—and how could black studies ever afford idealism over historical materialism? The source of terror for blacks is the gratuitous violence that created the image of antiblackness and which reproduces itself constantly under this “bad sign.”3 To call this violence by the name that Heidegger gives to its aftereffect, “nothing,” is to reify the concept and thereby displace the violence.
In fact, while it may be within the scope of Ontological Terror to consider in real terms the source of “nothing” for whites (meaning, the metaphysics of slaveholding as it is, not as whites would have us believe it is), Heidegger’s methods, even inverted, preclude this inquiry. According to Warren, postmetaphysics aims to weaken metaphysics, but nihilism “reaches its limit when antiblackness is left unchecked” (10). Yes, but this internal limit is constitutive to nihilism; it is a design feature, not a flaw. Nihilism is an expression of the slaveholding paradigm, and as such, functions just fine through its disavowal of antiblackness, for indeed that is its purpose. To argue as Warren does that nihilism is not nihilism without a critique of antiblackness is to make a friendly addendum where there are no friends (as John Henrik Clarke, Jayne Cortez, and Malcolm X have preached, each in their own ways). Addenda of this sort end up becoming hostile riders in the night against their erstwhile friends.
Western knowledge systems are of course rife with the schizoid sensibilities of slaveholding culture. Saying one thing, meaning another; principled on paper, immoral in practice. It is axiomatic in black studies to situate the language of the law in subordinate relation to the law in action. It is pointless to debate, for instance, concepts of privacy and rights under law when everyone knows that they do not apply to black people. Black studies analysis, therefore, must travel the other direction, from action ® concept: “privacy” and “rights” only cohere as such for non-blacks as expressions of the structural vulnerability of black people. In other words, it is not that “privacy” means one thing for whites and another for blacks; if we allow action to inform our understanding of concept, then the words do not mean what they purport to mean for anybody. This is the only antidote I can see to slaveholding schizophrenia. Unfortunately, Warren’s attempt to work within slaveholding culture’s philosophic doctrines allows this schizoid sensibility into his analysis. He acknowledges that Africans objectified as black are the outcome of slavery, but he otherwise encounters the philosophical treatment of this objectification as if it were not also the product of slavery.
Warren’s focus on the “free black” as “an extraordinary paradigm for black thinking . . . within which the foundations of humanism and metaphysics in general are challenged” betrays fidelity to Western knowledge systems that subvert black self-determination. By calling the struggles that free blacks encountered an ontological problem, it relieves “free” of its own burden as a culturally specific creation and epistemic tool of slaveholding. Exposing the fallacy of “free” in the postbellum period does not unravel the violence in any fundamental way because “free” has no integrity in a vacuum; it only arises as an object of philosophical discourse as a result of the slave trade. Contrary to Warren’s presentation of it, then, the white riot in August 1842 against free blacks in Philadelphia was not incited by the expression of black freedom per se, as if slavery itself was not one big institution of white riot (53). Race riots throughout the history of North American settlement (today transmuted as police actions) are not ruptures with a placid plantation status quo or a slaveholding past generally; they are merely one form of the gratuitous antiblack violence that has shaped the mundane contours of the late-premodern and modern worlds.
None of this violence has anything to do with what black people have or have not done—it is always and everywhere purely gratuitous. If freedom never meant freedom, but always registers slaveholding, and freedom papers are incidental to the police power against black people, then are not the papers merely additional accoutrements of white standing, not black? Violence as a result of a lack of freedom papers would be contingent violence, something akin to a green card immigration violation. That gratuitous violence remains a fact of black existence today shows that the papers are incidental, not ontological, to the structure of antiblackness, and that papers or not, free or not, black people still exist within property relations not human relations (100, 101, 105). Another way of thinking about this is that things like papers—or good credit or wealth or a body that does not magnetize bullets (as Frank Wilderson puts it) or the prerogative to ignore police violence (as Steve Martinot and Sexton point out)—represent racialization.4 But what we can never lose sight of is that all of these ways of representing the meaning of blackness and non-blackness are aftereffects of violence. Racism is an act of violence, the effect of which we come to call “race,” not the other way around. For example, racism is Office Darren Wilson approaching Michael Brown and shooting him dead in Ferguson, Missouri, on August 9, 2014; the meaning of “race” is Brown’s dead black body and Wilson’s unaccountable white one, authorized to use violence with impunity against blacks. Pointing out that free blacks are not really free is like saying there is bias at every stage of the criminal law, beginning with actions such as Wilson’s, when in fact that is precisely the point of “freedom” and its administration by the law.
Warren repeatedly seems to flip racism on its head, putting the cart before the horse, as if violence were the effect of knowledge, not its cause. “The world is antiblack,” writes Warren, “because it despises this nothing, this nothing that interrupts its organization of existence, its ground of intelligibility and certainty (which is why antiblack violence is a global problematic)” (35). Not only does the idea create the violence for Warren, but he comes to imbue philosophy itself with the agency to harm: “The particular way metaphysics oppresses . . . what metaphysics despises, what it hates” (10, 36). Knowledge can certainly injure, but only as an expression of power, and metaphysics is merely a historically specific cultural construct. Ontological Terror thus needs a more careful delineation of what kind of actions produce ontology so that we might understand what actions produce liberation from the violence to which ontology refers. Wilderson’s notion of the “political ontology of race” seems useful here: the product of, and subject to, political contestation, it acts as if it is the nature of things. Contrary to Warren, then, I think we need to keep the “political” foremost in our minds: no matter how timeless the violence seems, how long deferred human liberation has been, it comes about at a particular moment in human history due to struggles over power. In this view, we can follow Frantz Fanon in The Wretched of the Earth and Toward the African Revolution where he contends with the existentialist question continually posed by black counter-violence. Or, we can understand the central role that New World African maroons played in determining the concourse of abolition, as Gerald Horne explains in The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America. Or, we can evaluate Angela Y. Davis’s 1969 UCLA lectures, published while she was imprisoned as the pamphlet “Lectures on Liberation,” against the fate of her original codefendant Ruchell Cinque Magee, still locked up at Corcoran State Prison in California.5 Or, we can question why the entire basis of much of black studies today is based on performativity—in my view a gross historical, analytical, and political error, a sign of dire times in the afterlife of COINTELPRO, but this trend is nonetheless part of this continuum in which black thought has long grappled with the efficacy of action against the slaveholding regime.
There remain two important points to note respecting Ontological Terror and the black studies confrontation with metaphysical questions. First, the black studies library offers considerable resources for putting ontology in its place. Greg Thomas reminds us to begin with Cheik Anta Diop’s excavation of precolonial Africa.6 Diop notes the profound contrast between Aryan and African concepts of the metaphysical: “From the time of Ancient Egypt to present, the African has never thought of founding a durable moral or metaphysical system that is based on pessimism.”7 Ifi Amadiume and Oyeronke Oyewumi, to name but two additional African scholars, build on Diop’s foundation to reveal how binarism in all social concepts is a distinctly Eurocentric phenomenon.8 Maryse Conde, to move over to the Caribbean, shows how the primitive co-accumulation of black lands and bodies is the enclosure of communal lands and social relations underwriting slaveholding that enters modern knowledge as race and gender dichotomies.9
Second, African metaphysics have been transmuting as a result of the slave trade since at least the second century, with societies throughout the Mediterranean region, Arabia, Persia, Mesopotamia, India, and even the Chinese Empire using enslaved Africans before the Atlantic slave trading routes even opened.10 The manner of this transmutation is noteworthy for the questions I am raising here regarding the relationship between violence and ideology. Although various forms of bondage and service have long been practiced throughout Africa, there is no record of captives being cast out of social relations and categorically deprived of what the Western tradition would come to call “liberty.”11 The spread of Islam within Africa, however, led to cultural changes that contributed to Africa’s vulnerability to the increased demand for black slaves. Diop notes that while Islam mostly propagated “peacefully” from white Berber traders to certain black kings and notables, the introduction of Muslim culture brought a renunciation of the traditional African past.12 Walter Rodney explains that as Islam spread further into central and western Africa in the eighteenth century, it was the slave trade that shaped the practice of religion and jihad, not the other way around, with almost all of the intergroup hostilities and “wars” between African tribes motivated by and oriented towards procuring slaves to trade for European consumer goods.13 The African landscape transformed into a war-scape for the specific purpose of procuring slaves for export.14 By the nineteenth century, as the slave trade slowly gave way to formal colonialism, African societies had been thoroughly turned inside out across almost seventeen centuries.
The point I aim to raise in this cursory historical sketch is how cultural strength and knowledge can mitigate against external encroachments, but when these traditions are weakened the violence more easily finds its way in until a people do not need to be held at gunpoint—they hold the weapon themselves. Violence then sows the ground for more reactionary and barbaric ideologies to come in and flourish. The destruction of the African social ecology across the centuries of slave trading are the conditions of possibility for a fundamentalist Islam and a rapacious capitalist elite on the continent today. Likewise, the dramatic rise of African migrants making their way to the Mediterranean coast to seek passage to Europe, but finding themselves caught up in barracoons-in-the-Maghreb under the auspices of a new generation of Arab slave traders, is directly connected to NATO’s 2011 destruction of Libya.
In the North American academy, meanwhile, ways of knowing borne from centuries of this global antiblack violence fulfill the protocols of social control in the most mundane manner, as Warren’s important text teaches. The rise of philosophy as a discipline of knowledge separate from economics, history, sociology, humanities, mathematics, biology, and so forth, each discipline with its own methods and discourse set up to explain a particular aspect of the social order, keeps an integrated portrait of our world out of focus.15 I hope Warren’s follow-up act to Ontological Terror is an equally formidable strike out from philosophy. This kind of action might create the conditions necessary for black thought to flourish.
See Jared Sexton, “Ante-Anti-Blackness: Afterthoughts,” Lateral 1 (2012).↩
See Sexton, “All Black Everything,” e-flux 79 (2017); Lewis R. Gordon, Her Majesty’s Other Children: Sketches of Racism from a Neocolonial Age (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1997).↩
See Jonathan Munby, Under a Bad Sign: Criminal Self-Representation in African-American Popular Culture (University of Chicago Press, 2011).↩
See Frank B. Wilderson, Red, White & Black: Cinema and the Structure of U.S. Antagonisms (Duke University Press, 2010); Steve Martinot and Jared Sexton, “The Avant-Garde of White Supremacy,” Social Identities 9.2 (2003).↩
Originally published by the New York Committee to Free Angela Davis in 1971, Davis’s “Lectures on Liberation,” (https://archive.org/details/AngelaDavis-LecturesOnLiberation), were republished as “Unfinished Lecture on Liberation II,” in The Angela Y. Davis Reader, ed. Joy James (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1998), 53–60, and amplified by the historic “Unfinished Liberation” conference on policing, detention, and prisons organized by Joy James at the University of Colorado–Boulder in spring 1998. The “Unfinished Liberation” conference served as the model for the Critical Resistance national and regional conferences on prison abolition between fall 1998 and spring 2008.↩
See Greg Thomas, “Afro-Blue Notes: The Death of Afro-Pessimism (2.0)?,” Theory & Event 21.1 (January 2018) 282–317.↩
Cheik Anta Diop, The Cultural Unity of Black Africa (London: Karnak, 1989), 134–35.↩
See Ifi Amadiume, Male Daughters, Female Husbands: Gender and Sex in an African Society (London: Zed, 1987); Oyeronke Oyewumi, The Invention of Women: Making an African Sense of Western Gender Discourses (University of Minnesota Press, 1997).↩
See Maryse Conde, I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem (University of Virginia Press, 2009).↩
See R. W. Beachey, The Slave Trade of Eastern Africa (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1976); Ronald Segal, Islam’s Black Slaves (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2001).↩
See Walter Rodney, A History of the Upper Guinea Coast, 1545 to 1800 (New York: Monthly Review, 1970).↩
Diop, Precolonial Black Africa (Chicago: Lawrence Hill, 1987), 162–75.↩
Rodney, History of the Upper Guinea Coast, 236–37.↩
Rodney, History of the Upper Guinea Coast, 103.↩
See Lewis R. Gordon, Disciplinary Decadence: Living Thought in Trying Times (New York: Routledge, 2015); Cedric J. Robinson, The Terms of Order: Political Science and the Myth of Leadership (Albany: SUNY Press, 1980); Eric R. Wolf, Europe and the People Without History (University of California Press, 1982).↩
For many centuries now, from the medieval to the postmodern eras, the Western philosophical tradition endeavored to convince the emerging constituencies of Europe and Euro-America that Africans were not human beings; in point of fact, that relatively recent concept—Man and its devolutions—was forged in direct contradistinction to the sordid tropes of African existence: beast, mechanism, object, primitive, and, perhaps above all, thing. And yet, beneath or beyond this assignment of denigrating thingness to the African, which both motivated and justified the alloy of racial slavery, there is the ubiquitous projection of terrifying nothingness onto what would become the black body, a product of what Fanon famously termed the “metaphysical holocaust” of the transatlantic trade. Arguments have been proffered to that end within the overlapping discourses of theology, law, and science, and whether the disquisition was considered empirical, probabilistic, or speculative its many aspects were operationalized by the rising political and economic powers of the region, its varied technological developments, and the full force of its military detachments. As this (unevenly distributed) collective might made right in its own self-understanding, impressions became certainties, suppositions became presuppositions, conjectures became conclusions: in brief, a whole assumptive logic was established. We needn’t quibble about the periodization of this world-historical formation: five hundred, eight hundred, one thousand years? It should suffice that we recognize it now, from our own critical vantage, as the sedimented strata of our material and symbolic universe. Call it the political ontology of antiblackness and acknowledge that Calvin Warren’s Ontological Terror is a crucial formulation of this violent, ongoing structural dynamic.
As this is not a traditional book review, we can forego the usual parsing of major arguments, the evaluation of primary and secondary sources, the appraisal of textual exposition and explication, the analysis of rhetorical strategy, and so on, though much could be said on each count. A proper close reading with ample quotation would, in any case, require much more space than allotted here, given the historical compression and theoretical density of the project. Warren has gone to great lengths to elucidate the convergent crises—of faith and reason, of political governance and social organization—that, in many ways, crystalized around the Western metaphysical apprehension, or misapprehension, of nothing. The intellectual tradition in question reaches back at least to Parmenides, but it takes on a particular coherence from the seventeenth-century onward, with the rationalism of Descartes, Leibniz, and Spinoza and the empiricism of Berkeley, Hume, and Locke, among others; not coincidentally, this quickening of thought occurs amid the worldwide Columbian Exchange and is enabled by the European reconquest of Iberia, the development of long-range mercantile capitalism and overseas colonization, and, most importantly, the joint consolidation of modern slavery and its attendant racist ideology. For Warren, this often discontinuous history of ideas—embedded in the material practices of polity and economy, state and society—reaches a certain apotheosis with the advent of existential phenomenology in the early twentieth century, and most especially with the philosophical hermeneutics of Heidegger and his many interlocutors. The implications of Heidegger’s ontology for addressing the blinkered history of the “Negro Question,” in and beyond the Western ambit, are myriad, but Warren is unequivocal that an engagement with his thought is indispensable to the endeavor—not least an appreciation of the conceptual distinctions drawn between the ontological and the ontic, Being and beings, Existential and existenziell, ready-to-hand and present-at-hand, etc.
In this, I see Ontological Terror as less an intervention upon or recalibration of the discourse of afro-pessimism (as the book is currently pitched) and more an extraordinary elaboration of some of the latter’s most basic premises, including: the analytical split between phenomenal experience and ontological meditation; the triangulation of conscious interest, unconscious desire, and structural positionality; the delineation of conflicts within the category of the Human and the foundational antagonism between the Human and the Slave (or the black); the longue durée and global scale of antiblackness; and the consequent reframing of the critique of capitalism and the cultural politics of difference. If anything, Warren’s study places afro-pessimism on firmer ground, as it were, and bolsters, both historically and philosophically, many claims and insights that have heretofore been either wildly, even willfully, misread or simply dismissed outright. After reading Ontological Terror it is all the more difficult to draw a false equivalence between antiblackness and every salient form of domination, past and present. Antiblackness is not simply an uncommonly pernicious racist ideology or even a uniquely injurious racist practice (though ritual acts of symbolic and material violence are referenced throughout the text as ontic instances of an underlying ontological orientation); it is, more fundamentally, an unconscious cultural structure, a grammar, a weltanschauung, a metaphysics that lives on well after, and despite, the destruction of metaphysics. Indeed, post-metaphysical antiblackness may be more insidious yet, insofar as the contemporary nihilistic enterprise, represented most formidably for Warren by the work of Vattimo, risks advancing the illusion of an emancipatory transcendence. Vattimo’s nihilism, like that of his inspirations in Nietzsche and Heidegger, must be approached again as black nihilism, one that does not presume the possibility of overcoming the living legacy of metaphysics, one that begins instead from an insistence on the world-making permanence of antiblackness.
Warren offers this as one of the many summations or recapitulations of his thesis, but then writes further: “My use of ontological terror is designed to foreground not only the terror the human feels with lack of security, but also that this fear is predicated on a projection of ontological terror onto black bodies and the disavowal of this projection” (Warren 2018, 173n2). It would seem that every consciousness shares in some experience of ontological terror, whether it be the all-too-human lack of security evoked by the absent presence of nothing (i.e., loss of causation or ground as given by one’s “throwness” in the world) or the disavowed projection of such terror onto the black body (i.e., epidermalization) and the related “onticidal” violence the latter incurs by definition (i.e., negrophobogenesis). But that shared experience, marked pace Sharpe by a sort of monstrous intimacy, is belied by the asymptote of an impossible contact. Warren finds here that the psychoanalytic concept of “drive serves as a productive heuristic device to understand antiblackness and its objective. For Lacan, the drive relentlessly pursues an impossible object, which commences as a destructive repetition and surplus enjoyment of this repetition—the ultimate result is a form of extinction. Antiblackness pursues nothing as its impossible drive, but the destructive pleasure is projected onto black bodies” (Warren 2018, 186n62). Blacks must suffer, then, while Humans enjoy the destructive pleasure of unending nothing-destruction. There is, again, little need to split hairs about Lacan in a book that ranges astutely across several dozen complex theoretical sources, but in the almost imperceptible slippage between the “impossible object” of the drive and the “impossible drive” itself there is, in fact, a considerable difference. And perhaps one that makes a difference to the project, or projection, of Ontological Terror going forward or looping back, whatever the case may be.
It matters greatly that afro-pessimism has emphasized over the last decade a conceptual displacement (to repeat: not a replacement, as too many readers have wrongly concluded) of political economy with and within the adumbration of a notion of libidinal economy. One of the key interventions that afro-pessimism has attempted in the field of black studies, broadly conceived, has been to reintroduce and to make use of a revised (and admittedly selective) psychoanalytic framework to probe the peculiar intricacies of antiblackness, a way to locate its singular movement over and above the many family resemblances that suggest the otherwise unwarranted analogy or parallel between the black position and all others, “especially when it takes the form of an emotive amalgamation rather than of a reasoned comparison” (Wacquant 2008, 136). A critical appreciation of such analytic concepts is vital to untangling the threads of such emotive amalgamations regarding antiblackness, those born either of solidarity or of spite (and of course it is often difficult to know where one stops and the other starts, that being the point). The drive, then, is in no ways impossible, though its object is strictly unattainable and therefore impossible in that limited sense. But it is the very nature of the drive to miss its object precisely in order to repeat its circuitous route, in order to maintain itself. It does not seek to destroy its object, its aim being to preserve its object in perpetuity. Were it to destroy the object, or to attain it in any real sense, whether aggressively or amorously, it would succeed only in extinguishing itself. The drive faces the risk of extinction, that is, not the object, which as Warren rightly notes it is fantasmatic and unreal. The violence against the black body is, however, all too real. How to square this circle?
One way might be to maintain the distinction between the “object of desire,” an entity in the ontic register (a person, say, or a political ideal), and the “object-cause of desire,” otherwise known in Lacan’s discourse as the objet petit a or simply “object a,” a configuration of psychic reality. Object a is that within the object of desire which is inaccessible and enigmatic, that which is in the object more than the object; it is, in short, the structure of the fantasy that coordinates or governs the relation of the desiring subject to the object of desire. This distinction would correspond here to the black body (as object of desire) and the nothing (as object a) and in Warren’s analysis of the antiblack imagination that conflation is exposed for all its fatal consequences. My point, though, is that that massive conflation is sometimes reified in the critique of the conflation itself, just at the moment when the “global drive” of antiblackness appears as a pathology, rather than the prototype or paradigm of all desiring, and, eventually, comes in for moral denunciation as a form of corruption and criminality. This should strike the sympathetic reader as strange, given that Warren’s text is assiduous in its refusal of morality and ethics on the one hand, and legalism, on the other; on the grounds that such discourse—say, in a moral philosophy of normative ethics or metaethics, or in a philosophical ethics that attempts to integrate normative ethics with metaethics, or a legal advocacy in search of even radical reform—relies upon the same foundational antiblackness it would take as its object of philosophical study or legal complaint. I see this denunciation, to cite only one instance, at the heart of Warren’s ultimate judgment that “the antiblack world is irredeemable” (Warren 2018, 171).
Now, of course, I agree that any arguments for redemption are untenable at best and this has been a point of major public contention vis-à-vis afro-pessimism from the beginning: whether and when and how and to what extent some corner of the world is now, always has been, or could in the future be redeemed in and for black existence. But, to my mind, an afro-pessimist response to the failure of such arguments would not be to preserve its categories by declaring it irredeemable instead. Perhaps, as a first move, yes, in the name of polemical response, and if that is the thrust of Ontological Terror then it should be judged an unmitigated success. However, there an indiscernible something beyond that curious judgment, something beyond judgment as such, that is only indicated by Warren’s counsel in pursuit of “a phenomenology of black spirit” (Warren 2018, 171; for more, see his 2017 article, “Black Mysticism,” in Zeitschrift für Anglistik und Amerikanistik). What will become a more fulsome appeal to shift attention from the (pessimistic) political ontology of antiblackness, including that which is deployed in Ontological Terror, to the (optimistic) mysticism of black spirit, which we might assume to be the focus of a forthcoming book, contains within it something that is not so much “situated at the limit of deconstruction and Destruktion—blackness as the ‘undeconstructable’ core of ontometaphysics” (Warrent 2018, 180n8) as it is immanent to both.
When Warren describes “black being as spacing” in the Derridean sense, he is on the track of something that he lets loose in the next sentence: “For Derrida, this spacing constitutes nothing itself. Spacing [as the gap in between established properties] ruptures the metaphysics of presence and being, since it is a formlessness that preconditions the structure itself (grammar, language, semiotics). . . . This spacing is the nothing of metaphysics” (Warren 2018, 196n22). So far so good, but the sentence hiding in the ellipsis reads: “In this way, emancipation is a spacing of blackness.” This statement functions in context as shorthand for the critique of emancipation as false exit to freedom. Yet, this slippage, not unlike the treatment of drive above, between blackness as spacing and the spacing of blackness is telling. It reads to me as both a conceptual ambiguity and an affective ambivalence. The ambiguity relates to whether blackness is substantive, like a body, or differing and deferring, like nothing. The ambivalence relates to whether black people, or those who come to embody a negatively projected blackness, can do anything to resolve the matter. Can and should: I add the ought imperative here despite its foreclosure in an antiblack world, even for people designated black, because it weighs down upon the text like a heavy mist, condensing around the guiding question: “How is it going with black being?”
While rightly identifying the task before us as “the imagination of black existence without Being,” which is to say existence without the prospect of becoming legible as beings (whatever the conventional desire to do so), Warren then steps beyond the afro-pessimist refusal of prescription and prognosis. Wilderson ends Red, White, and Black with this précis: “To say we must be free of air, while admitting to knowing no other source of breath, is what I have tried to do here” (Wilderson 2010, 338). Warren, by contrast, would invite us to adopt a disposition: endurance. To endure means to remain in existence, of course, but it also means to suffer patiently, a subsidiary prescription that would seem orthogonal to the urgency, and occasionally the haste, that otherwise animates the text. Moreover, the apocalyptic revolutionary forecast seems not only overstated, but also overwrought. Human life is not all life, and the world, such as it is, is not the earth. All of existence is finite, whether it is living or nonliving, human or nonhuman, but imagining it without Being does not require imagining it destroyed. It entails imagining it in and as the ruins of Being, after the end of the world, in an entirely other relation to the nothing from whence it comes.
Herein we might find something of the spacing between afro-pessimism and black nihilism: not at the level of analysis or conclusion or even implication, but rather at the level of opening and closing gesture. When faced with an antiblack world, do you call it eternally fallen because within it you are damned? And do you endure it as such, in pursuit of black spirit, waiting out an earthly purgatory, cleansing yourself of the sins of a (futile) desire for Being? Or does a world-destroying black thinking not allow for some other understanding of damnation? Alas, there are resources older and more incendiary than our or any memory, individual or collective; you can lose yourself and your damnation in the same unending, sinking feeling . . . jusqu’ici tout va bien.
1.6.21 | Calvin Warren
Nihilistic Care (or Residing in the Slippage): Some Divergences between Afro-Pessimism and Black Nihilism
What does care entail for nihilistic thought? Must we foreground care within destructive enterprises (or any thought that undermines metaphysical fantasies and foundations)? Does the nihilist care about anything or is it inconsequential to the task of critiquing/undermining political ontology? What is the relationship between black existence and care?
These inquires “weigh down upon me like a heavy mist,” as Jared Sexton might describe it, when thinking about black existence in an anti-black world. The weight of these questions, at times, seems unbearable, but unloading this heaviness, pushing it into the recesses of thought, is even more unbearable. I experienced this “heavy mist” during an invited lecture on black nihilism. After the lecture, the audience asked many predictable questions, and I conditioned myself to answer many of them over the years (most were variations of the same academic concerns from angry humanists and skeptical philosophers). A black woman wearing a uniform, however, stood up to ask a different question. She prefaced her question by telling me she was not an academic, she worked for the dining hall at the university. She saw a flyer advertising my lecture, and she decided to attend. I was very humbled she took time out of her workday to attend my lecture. She shared that her young son was very afraid of white people—the murder of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, and many others left him traumatized. The threat of imminent death presented serious existential problems for him, creating a certain paralysis of will. Talk of political hope, freedom, and justice were absurd to her, and she agreed with my nihilistic analysis—in fact, she thanked me for finally expressing many of her concerns. But then she asked, “Without political hope, freedom, or a sense of justice, how does my son live in the world? Is there anything I can do as a parent to help him accept your premises, while protecting his ‘spirit’ [her term]?” The gravity of her question, and the sincere concern in her voice, left me speechless. Actually, I fought back tears and remained silent until I could recompose myself. My immediate response was to follow what Sexton calls “the Afro-pessimist refusal of prescription and prognosis” by telling her I had no answers, since it was not my responsibility to provide answers, and even still, no such answer existed. So, even though you and your son “must be free of air,” there is “no other source of breath,” so do the best you can. Next question. But at that moment, I realized what Christina Sharpe would call “black care in the wake” was even more urgent when you bring blacks to the precipice of existence.1 Destroying the onto-metaphysical ground that provides the fantasy of Being, while also refusing to engage the how of existence (or black existence in the ruins of Being) without those very fantasies is intellectual cruelty and a disregard for black existence—a certain scholarly malpractice.
In response to Sexton’s citation of Wilderson III, I must inquire: Is there no other source of breath? What supports the apodictic certainty of this “no”? If so, how did the enslaved survive the hole of the ship? If, as Sexton asserts, “there are resources older and more incendiary than in our memory, individual or collective,” then is there something else to breath, much more ancient than the current/toxic air we inhale?
The black nihilist, then, is preoccupied as much with the how of black existence, as much as with the destruction of onto-metaphysics. Destruction without a presentation of black existence is bereft of “care.” It’s a resignation of black thought. For the Afro-pessimist, I believe, there is nothing left of black thought—it can do no more than reproduce the grammar of political ontology. Thus, Black thought—much like Heideggerian metaphysics—is finished; it has accomplished its aim, it’s exhausted its potential and efficacy, rendering it a predictable/schematic repetition. Put differently, there is no thinking against the ruins of political ontology, for Afro-pessimists; its enterprise, then, fixates on the rudiments of destruction, without an intervention of construction. So, part of the “spacing between Afro-pessimism and Black Nihilism,” as Sexton brilliantly describes it, is the relation between black thought and black care. For the Afro-pessimist, black thought it totally embedded in anti-blackness. And because of this, it cannot think care or present black existence—it has exhausted its resources. Thus, the how of black existence is unapproachable for Afro-pessimism; it cannot offer a philosophy of black existence itself—only the critique of political ontology. This is why the Afro-pessimists “refuses prognosis and prescription,” I believe, because it has subordinated all black existence to political ontology—there isn’t any “slippage” or gap. The Black nihilist, however, would assert that there are resources not subordinate to anti-blackness that sustains black existence in the “hold” of political ontology. These resources have yet to be named or organized systematically.
A reframing of this perspective is to question Sexton’s assertion that “to endure means to remain in existence, of course, but it also means to suffer patiently, a subsidiary prescription that would seem orthogonal to the urgency, and occasionally the haste, that otherwise animates the text.” When you reduce all black existence to political ontology, existence, for blacks, can entail nothing else but suffering and purgatory. It is a “waiting in the interval,” as Keeling might describe it, between physical death and assured damnation.2 This interpretation of endurance, however, assumes that existence and ontology are interchangeable; and I work assiduously (at times “hastily” and “urgently”) to contravene this idea. Again, if the only resource of black existence is Being, then, yes, endurance is nothing more than a suffering in purgatory. But the black nihilist asserts that black existence is not reducible to ontology (fungible inhabitation is just one facet of existence), and this irreducibility is the “slippage” of black “joy,” “love,” “care,” and “passion,” within anti-blackness. I have called this “black spirit”—I don’t have any other signifier for this (I’ve addressed this problematic in another response). Put differently, why must we only suffer patiently? Why can’t we enjoy our loved ones patiently? Why can’t we laugh with our friends patiently? Why can’t we worship patiently? Even though blacks suffer from ontological execration, this is not all blacks do. And this, if nothing else, is the most significant gap between nihilism and pessimism. To be clear, the black nihilist does not rely on anti-black institutions for these “spiritual resources” (and this is what differentiates me from the “black optimist” and makes me more of a “mystic”). The resources enabling endurance “are within the world, but not of the world.” Put differently, these resources reveal themselves in the world—as joy, love, care, etc.—but articulating the source of such resources requires a noetic practice still germinating.
It is this “slippage”—to borrow Sexton’s terminology—the black nihilist must claim as the only hope for blacks in an anti-black world. Rather than reducing “slippage” to an inability to master the consistency of logic or an inadvertent incongruity within text, we might also think of slippage as a productive or generative tension, producing a gap—at times imperceptible or considered insignificant. This gap might appear paradoxical or contradictory when it is subordinated to anti-black logic (I understand more, now, why Heidegger urged us to set logic aside when examining Being since it obstructed philosophical sight). For example, Sexton remarks that my assertion “black being [is] spacing” and “emancipation is a spacing of blackness,” reads “as both a conceptual ambiguity and an affective ambivalence. The ambiguity relates to whether blackness is substantive, like a body, or differing and deferring like nothing.” Sexton’s binary logic or dualistic schematization (either/or, this or that but never both) misreads paradoxical formulation as ambivalence. A slippage then, within his analysis, relinquishes binary thinking as an act conceptual and affective ambivalence—or as a symptom of scholarly uncertainty. In my engagement with philosopher Alain David (chapter 1), I suggested that blackness is both form and formlessness—it interrupts form with formlessness and sustains formlessness through its form. Why this paradox or refusal of binary thinking? This is precisely because metaphysics cast blackness in both roles simultaneously—never exclusively one. And this is why David, after exhausting himself philosophically, calls blacks “imaginary.” Blackness is imaginary because anti-blackness must hold this paradox as the only possibility for black inhabitation—as its metaphysical function. This is why blackness is so irresistible and fetishistic for metaphysics because it is limitlessly labile.
The name I’ve given to this paradoxical organization is “catachrestic fantasies” in the chapter Sexton is referencing. How, then, do you space formless form? When I say that “emancipation is the spacing of blackness” and that “black being is spacing,” I mean that blackness is both the condition of space (formlessness, the gap between established properties) and also the embodiment of nothing—emancipation spaces this embodiment (as nothingness). Put differently, blackness is precisely a metaphysical ambivalence, and my exposure of this ambivalence isn’t an affective uncertainty. Blacks must be both body and space. It can be spaced and constitutes space. It is this labile use of black(ness) that Ontological Terror claims is the unique and particular function of blacks in an anti-black world. Blackness, for metaphysics, is a set of ambivalences codified as terror.
Sexton states that this ambivalence “relates to whether black people, or those who come to embody blackness, can do anything to resolve the matter.” Although I believe Sexton misrecognizes an exposure of metaphysical ambivalence as my own uncertainty about blackness, I’m definitely uncertain why such ambivalence pertains to blacks doing “anything to resolve the matter.” Sexton translates an invitation to focus on black endurance as a categorical imperative or normative frame. Why must we reduce practices and strategies of black care to Kantian or normative ethical mandates? Is ethics the only cartography of care for Afro-pessimists, and because of this, all such practices reproduce ethical violence? Is black survival so trivial to Afro-pessimism that it is reduced to a reproduction of political ontology? What do you call black “social life as social death” practices or inhabitations?3 These comments, I believe, are symptoms of an inability to present a philosophy of black existence in excess of anti-black political ontology. It seems as though sexton’s conceptual horizon is unable (or unwilling) to think black care as anything other than anti-black illusions or mandates. Put differently, whether I mandate it or not, blacks still endure metaphysical violence. A categorical imperative does not alter endurance; it is, for lack of any other word, black facticity—meaning, it persists without any mandate from the scholar. My vocation is simply to foreground what blacks are already doing and have been doing since the hold of the slave ship.
Afro-pessimism and Black Nihilism are necessary supplements to an understanding of anti-blackness (as political ontology and metaphysics) and the challenge of black existence (can we present it, and how?). The “slippage” between these two fields is an opportunity for generative discussion and the cultivation of black thought. I am grateful for Sexton’s thorough and insightful engagement with my work, and I anticipate more conversations about these important issues.
Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016).↩
Kara Keeling, “In the Interval: Frantz Fanon and the “Problems” of Visual Representation,” Qui Parle 13.2 (Spring/Summer 2003) 91–117.↩
It is, indeed, interesting that while Sexton acknowledges such practices of sociality in his engagement with Fred Moten, he never uses ethics or normativity to translate them. Why is endurance an ethical mandate but sociality isn’t? Please see Sexton’s “The Social Life of Social Death: On Afro-Pessimism and Black Optimism,” Intensions 5 (Fall/Winter 2011).↩