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.↩