Symposium Introduction

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


  1. Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, trans. Richard Philcox (Grove Press, 2008), 193.

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

  3. 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.

  4. Hortense J. Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” Diacritics 17.2 (1987) 64–81, doi:10.2307/464747.

  5. 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.

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

  7. Calvin Warren “The Catastrophe,” Qui Parle 28.2 (December 2019) 353–72, doi:10.1215/10418385-7861859.

  8. Jared Sexton, “The Vel of Slavery: Tracking the Figure of the Unsovereign,” Critical Sociology 42.4–5 (2014) 583–97, doi:10.1177/0896920514552535.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

Jared Sexton

Response

Response

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.

It is precisely this nothing that ontological terror targets, and black existence is precisely the condition of unending nothing-destruction. This, of course, is a metaphysical fantasy, since nothing can never be destroyed, but it provides a metaphysical world with a devastating will to power. Black being is invented precisely to constitute the object of a global drive—the endless pursuit of nothing. (Warren 2018, 170)

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?”

Perhaps what I am suggesting constitutes an ontological revolution, one that will destroy the world and its institutions (i.e., the “end of the world,” as Fanon calls it). But these are our options, since the metaphysical holocaust will continue as long as the world exists. The nihilistic revelation, however, is that such a revolution will destroy all life—far from the freedom dreams of the political idealists or the sobriety of the pragmatist. (Warren 2018, 171)

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.

  • Calvin Warren

    Calvin Warren

    Reply

    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.


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

    2. Kara Keeling, “In the Interval: Frantz Fanon and the “Problems” of Visual Representation,” Qui Parle 13.2 (Spring/Summer 2003) 91–117.

    3. 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).

Amaryah Armstrong

Response

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.

  • Calvin Warren

    Calvin Warren

    Reply

    How Is It Going with Black Being? (Spiritual Catachresis)

    Santiago Zabala’s important study The Remains of Being: Hermeneutic Ontology after Metaphysics foregrounds Heidegger’s fundamental question: How is it going with Being? [Wie steht es um das Sein?].1 This fundamental question invites us to consider what remains after the Destruktion of metaphysics. For Heidegger, we will never completely eradicate metaphysics—the destructive procedure will leave remnants, and we must contend with the intransigent remains of metaphysical violence and reconstruct/re-member Being as Event (Ereignis, rather than schematized object). Destruktion is often (mis)understood as a completed destruction (or total eradication), but Heidegger considered this process as one of weakening or devastating attenuation of the metaphysical infrastructure (Verwindung, “getting over”).

    In answer to Amaryah Armstrong’s important question “How does one read what remains given in Warren’s argument that the flesh is obliterated?” I would like to think of obliteration much like Destruktion with, albeit, different philosophical aims. One could think of obliteration as a complete eradication or erasure from existence without a trace, which is of course one common meaning of the term, and one I think organizes Armstrong’s “A Black Question for Black Nihilism: On the Endurance of the Flesh.” But the term is much more layered than total eradication without a trace; for example, Merriam-Webster defines it as “utter removal from recognition or memory; medically, causing something (something, such as a bodily part, a scar, or a duct, to disappear or collapse” (my emphasis); “making undecipherable or imperceptible by obscuring or wearing away” (my emphasis). Obliteration, then, can connote the collapsing, wearing away, attenuation, or obscuring of something—rendering this something inoperative. My use of obliteration throughout the text refers to this wearing away and attenuation, rather than erasure from existence (without a trace). In other words, obliteration is always already a commentary on the status of what remains, a eulogy of its inoperability. Much like a collapsed lung can be considered “obliterated” within the medical field (the lung does not vanish or cease to exist), the flesh becomes inoperative through its wearing away and its obfuscation (“the zero degree of social conceptualization,” as Spillers describes it). I agree with Armstrong that a philosophical commentary on “what remains” after anti-black devastation (what I have been calling the “metaphysical holocaust”) is important to the “flesh’s remembrance in black studies.” This is why I challenge, and supplant, Heidegger’s question “How is it going with Being?” with “How is it going with black being?” For me, it is the obliterated remains of black flesh that enables Dasein to ask its onto-existential question. Being’s destiny, and its remembrance, is intertwined and dependent on the Negro Question. So when Armstrong argues, “Spillers invocation of the flesh as captive flesh is instructive but also at odds with Warren’s obliterated flesh,” this perceived “tension” not only depends on a (mis)reading of obliteration, but also a neglect of the relation between captivity and the flesh. Rather than quibble about the existence of black flesh—we both agree that black flesh exists—our philosophical divergence, if we can call it that, is on the status of black flesh.

    This is why I foreground the question “How is it going with black Being” as the most important question within black studies (and philosophy in general). Another way of asking this question is “What is the operation of black flesh within the metaphysical holocaust?” Since black flesh encounters Being as an execration and excision, what is the function of the flesh within this onto-metaphysical devastation? Armstrong’s answer to this question is resolutely affirmative, as if the flesh is a repository of generativity and possibility? But why is this so? Why such an uncritical faith in the flesh? Why must we attribute black joy and endurance to the flesh? This optimism isn’t supported in Spiller’s text, other than to translate “hieroglyphics” as a cryptic topography of potential. Because Armstrong deposits black life and endurance into the flesh, she must advocate for it, almost in a syllogistic maneuver of thought (flesh = endurance = black life). Because I question the operations of the flesh, I turn to the spirit (I will say more about this). At times, it seems as though Armstrong’s literality of the flesh operates as a “new materialism”—matter with unlimited potential. If we read the words “wounded,” “lacerated,” and “registered,” literally, and not metaphorically as I have done, then how does this matter not escape “concealment under the brushes of discourse” or constitutes a “zero degree of social conceptualization?”2 And if the flesh does, indeed, constitute a “zero” within the field of conceptualization and thought, how do we know with apodictic certainty that it is generative, rather than just “exists”? The problem is that the term “flesh” is quite amorphous and undefined in “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe”—which produces readings that are misidentified as conflicting, when they just run in parallel.

    One objective of this book is to encourage black studies (black thinking, black poetics, black theology, etc.) to abandon its onto-metaphysical foundations and constraints—to imagine black existence without fealty to ontology. One aspect of this agenda, for which I provide only an opening in my coda, is to challenge the onto-theology that often serves as incontestable ground for black humanism and black theology. It is onto-theology that provides the arsenal of moral and ethical fortifications for humanist discourse. So, my turn toward the “spirit” is not a reaffirmation of onto-theology (e.g., the metaphysical grounding of being through theology), but to signal what Jean Luc Marian would consider “God without Being.”3 My idea of “spirit” is not the Western spirit deployed to moralize binary thinking (between body/spirit), but a signifier without a signified we can adequately translate into philosophical practice. This is to say, spirit, like being, is written under erasure. Unfortunately, I do not have another word—grammatical paucity keeps me in a double bind of signification. Any word I chose will be entangled in the metaphysical bind of signification, which dockets the intellectual suffering of the black nihilist. (Even if I chose a word from another cosmology, I will still have to do so within the context of anti-black discourse, and the enterprise will require a violent translation to differentiate it from onto-theology.) Thus, when Armstrong inquires, “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?” I agree with her that “spirit” risks a reinscription of the metaphysical tradition I challenge, but the risk is an inevitable one since no sign can really capture what I am after. The best that I can offer is to signal toward the enduring power of the spirit, as the energy not contingent on onto-metaphysical idolatry or its political-philosophical structures. Thus, spiritual catachresis is all the nihilist can offer—constantly warding off impositions of anti-black signifieds, so that the sign remains open. Guarding this sign (whether we call it “spirit,” “plenum,” “paraontology,” “breath,” etc.) is the tremendous task before the black nihilist. The extraordinary philosopher-theologian Charles Long meditates on this problematic in Significations: Signs, Symbols, and Images in the Interpretation of Religion.4 Along with him, I ask, what hermeneutical and interpretive strategies are at all possible within a symbolic so saturated with anti-black religiosity. The problem of the “sign” is one, I believe that is irresolvable, but we must negotiate with symbolic violence in order to undermine it (until the world ends, along with its signification).

    Armstrong queries if “the turn to the spirit at the end is not a nihilistic supersession of the flesh by the spirit’s endurance.” Supersession, I would argue, is caught in onto-metaphysics since both flesh and onto-metaphysical spirit will inevitably fail blackness. As a theory of replacement, onto-metaphysics’ spirit is no better than the mystical flesh at preserving black existence. The “spirit” that I have in mind, although using a familiar and fraught signifier, would not simply replace but is a dynamic creative energy that contravenes both alternatives. What allows black existence to endure is not properly schematized within the theory of supersession. What Armstrong’s brilliant engagement with Ontological Terror exposes is the necessity for articulating the ineffable and the double bind metaphysics presents for opening its alternative.


    1. Santiago Zabala, The Remains of Being: Hermeneutic Ontology After Metaphysics (New York: Columbia University Press), 2009.

    2. Hortense Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” Black, White & in Color: Essays on American Literature and Culture (University of Chicago Press, 2003), 206.

    3. Jean-Luc Marion, God without Being, trans. Thomas A. Carlson, foreword by David Tracy (University of Chicago Press), 2012.

    4. Charles Long, Significations: Signs, Symbols, and Images in the Interpretation of Religion (Aurora, CO: Davies, 1999).

Amber Musser

Response

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.


  1. Calvin Warren Ontological Terror: Blackness, Nihilism, and Emancipation (Duke University Press, 2018), 5–6.

  2. Warren, Ontological Terror, 6.

  3. Robin Bernstein, “Dances with Things: Material Culture and the Performance of Race,” Social Text 27.4 (2009) 67–94; 70.

  4. Amber Jamilla Musser, Sensual Excess: Queer Femininity and Brown Jouissance (NYU Press, 2018).

  5. 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.

  6. Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, trans. H. M. Parshley (New York: Vintage, 1989), 399.

  7. 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.

  8. Warren, Ontological Terror, 96.

  9. 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.

  10. Hortense Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book” Diacritics 17.2 (Summer 1987) 64–81; 80.

  11. Fred Moten, Consent Not to Be a Single Being (trilogy) (Duke University Press, 2017/2018).

  12. Warren, Ontological Terror, 19.

  • Calvin Warren

    Calvin Warren

    Reply

    The Ruse of Relationality: Rethinking Humanist Fantasies of Being

    What are the philosophical preconditions for “relationality”? Is it an a priori (or primordial) given, an uncontested ground of existence? Furthermore, if relationality is not an a priori (an “always already” configuration), what rational, affective, or narrative enterprises engender it? If it is a dynamic or generative process, rather than a ground, what sustains this process and is this activity an intrinsic feature of existence itself or is it a cultivated phenomenon? If cultivated, what are its requisite resources and conditions—are these distributed equally across existence? In other words, what constitutes the (onto-metaphysical) infrastructure of relationality and how do we “test” the reliability of its edifice? I present these questions to Amber Musser because throughout her diacritical response, relationality, itself, is left unchallenged—it is a signifier overflowing with unimpeachable potential and redoubtable ambition. As a rhetorical tactic, Musser often attaches “relationality” (and “relational”) to problematic terms such as “freedom” or “being,” as a metaphysical qualifier, as if “relation(ality)” performs metaphysical detoxification and purges those problematic terms of their anti-black viciousness and philosophical violence.

    Relationality is humanism. Its purpose is to crystalize the dynamic interdependence and coterminous constitution of human activity. As an ontological (or metaphysical) structure, it locates the emergence of “being” within this very dynamism and schematizes the coordinates of being along an axis of ambiguity, transition, and ethics. Thus, the objective of this “ethics” (and my parenthetical cast aspersions on the term) is to orient human reality. Understanding this onto-metaphysical project as mitsein, Musser, following Eva Gothlin, suggests it “express[es] simply the fact that human reality is a being-with, even if not a being-one but being-many.”1 But is human reality the lived experience of the black? I argued, assiduously, throughout the book that the black is not a human and that we need a new philosophy of black existence (one not predicated on humanism, ontology, or metaphysics because these are irredeemably anti-black). Nevertheless, Musser attempts a beautiful theoretical translation/transposition of humanism (and its ontological preconditions) to the condition of execrated flesh; unfortunately, she sidesteps the question of black ontology in this translation. Is the black a human being within the dynamism of mitsein? Is “human reality” a universal resource or an exclusive/racial privilege? The translation/transposition requires philosophical suturing between incommensurable inhabitations. Fred Moten remarks relationality is “an expression of power structured by the giveness of a transcendental subjectivity that the black cannot have but by which the black can be had.”2 For execrated existence, the transcendental subject is a violent formation—one predicated on black destruction as the conduit for the “possibility of transcendence.” Simone de Beauvoir’s celebrated “possibility” of transcendence neglects the destructive power required to sustain transcendence and wretchedness. To “be had” by the ruse of relationality entails a forged fantasy—one that translates black suffering as human potential and presents this translation as an always already feature of givenness (or facticity). It is a ruse; one we cannot afford within the current context of urgency. This is precisely why I appreciate the brilliant work of philosopher Axelle Karera, because she exposes relationality as the perversity of ethics—a perversion that misrecognizes anti-black subjection as ethical transformation. She avers,

    Relationality is inherently not only a position the black cannot afford or even claim. The structure of relationality is essentially the condition for the possibility of their [black] enslavement. I wonder, therefore, whether our naïve reliance in a type of inherent co-dependence has recently done more harm than good—that is to say, has instead worked to obstruct the very possibility of a positive transformation of our ethical sensibilities.3

    According to philosopher Nancy Bauer, Beauvoir’s use of mitsein is a permutation of Heidegger’s notion in Being and Time and Hegel’s master-slave dialectic. Beauvoir engages Heidegger’s mitsein not to aspire toward an ethical fellowship (as it is usually interpreted), but to establish the facticity of being-with in the world (a “thrown-ness” into the world that poses particular challenges for women in her The Second Sex). For Heidegger, philosophical solipsism (attempting to establish certainty of the world by circular self-referentiality or centrality of the isolated mind) neglected the insertion of the human in the actual world. Although more could be said about this, for Bauer, this is what most attracted Beauvoir to mistein. With this term, Beauvoir could escape the arid debates of metaphysics and think through the reality of women in patriarchy (or the world delimited by men). But the world women are in is a particularly violent and hostile one. In this way, she relies on Hegel’s misanthropic perspective of humanity, as a fight unto the death. It is a dialectic that often denigrates women as a feature of male sovereignty (or mastery). To encapsulate the objective of this permutation, Bauer suggests,

    What the term Mitsein means for Beauvoir is not that human beings are primordially bonded together in some salutary way or even that they are interdependent. Rather, Mitsein entails a huge threat to my assuming of my ambiguity (and, particularly, my freedom). My being-with others does not mean that I am no longer a Cartesian subject: to the contrary, it gives me the means to hide this fact from myself.4

    Within this interpretation, Mitsein compromises authenticity by restricting ambiguity (or the human right to control the fiction of the “I”) and, at the same time, provides an opening for authenticity by returning the gaze back to the Cartesian subject, forcing the subject to take responsibility for its constitution. But if, as I have argued, blackness is the condition of execration—an incontrovertible staining of abjection—such ambiguous movement between “subject,” “object,” and “undefined” is not applicable. In other words, such freedom depends on the capacity for incessant movement and a reclamation of the “I.” Beauvoir’s “subject” is not the black excluded from the ontological grounds sustaining human freedom. Fanon tried the reclamation in Black Skin, White Masks; but for him, the racialized, epidermal schema crushed any possibility for “relational freedom” or authenticity within Mitsein. He found, rather than the joyful (or painful) play of ambiguity and interminable transit, he came into the world “an object.”5 His hope was to become a (hu)man like everyone else, but this dream was devastatingly deferred—humiliating in its mockery.

    Although I do not believe that “relational freedom” or authenticity within Mitsein are possible for blacks, I do appreciate and take very seriously Musser’s invitation to think with these concepts. She closes with an interesting statement (or admission): “Even as it might not break the prevailing structures of anti-blackness (or heteropatriarchy), if we shift our perspective we might find other orientations and other routes through.” What might such a “route” entail? If anti-blackness remains the structuration of Mistsein, what is the purpose of “freedom”? Why preserve the term “freedom” if it is unable to release blackness from the nothing enslaving it? Is “freedom” just an affective signifier, one that makes us feel hopeful and powerful when we deploy it? Does relationality depend on Hegelian recognition, and if not, what sustains relationality? Finally, what is the efficacy of movement between subject/object without the destruction of ontological terror? Are we just ambiguously terrorized?


    1. 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.

    2. Fred Moten, “Blackness and Nothingness (Mysticism in the Flesh),” South Atlantic Quarterly 112.4 (Fall 2013) 738–80, 749.

    3. Axelle Karera, “Blackness and the Pitfalls of Anthropocene Ethics,” Critical Philosophy of Race 7.1 (2019) 32–56, 48.

    4. Nancy Bauer, “Being-With as Being-Against: Heidegger meets Hegel in The Second Sex,” Continental Philosophy Review 34 (2001) 129–49; 144.

    5. Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, trans. Charles Lam Markmann. (New York: Grove, 1967), 109.

Tryon Woods

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January 27, 2021, 1:00 am

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