Afro-Pessimism as Aesthetic Blackness

Ligon-Untitled_Four_Etchings_1992_B0The beginning to a talk I will give at the Cultural Studies Association conference in Riverside, CA next week. On the occasion of Achille Mbembe’s new preface to the African reprint of On the Postcolony by Wits University Press

Mbembe: Critique is witnessing as well as endless vigilance, interrogation and anticipation. A proper ­critique requires us first to dwell in the chaos of the night in order precisely to better break through into the dazzling light of the day.

We recognise the moment of pessimism when the layers of the past and the world of the present fall into the void; that is, a place that is not a place. We recognise the moment of pessimism when we trivialise human experience or provoke misplaced empathy or contempt, when, unable to release language, we succumb to the elemental materiality of the there is.

We enter this “dark night of language” when its symbolising powers are suddenly crippled and, instead of revealing what is hidden within the self-evident and what lies beneath the surface, behind the mask, language circles in on itself and hides what it should be showing.

This paper is on the darkness that clings to so-called “afro-pessimism.” My thesis is that to take the “pessimism” of afro-pessimism seriously, I argue for moving from the metaphysical pessimism of making claims about this world to the moral pessimism of a fatalistic attitude towards the world.

I make my argument in two parts. First, I draw out the negativity of “blackness” currently associated with Afro-pessimism. The exact status of blackness has always been a point of contention within the black radical tradition. Frantz Fanon’s “fact of blackness” can be contrasted with his one-time mentor Aimé Césare’s négritude project. On this account, afro-pessimism is indebted to Fanon’s psychoanalytic statement on the ontology of blackness. Frank Wilderson provides the most definitive account to date. The crux of his work is a tripartite re-working of Lacanian subject categories through formulation of red, white, & black as the constitutive racial antagonisms of the United States (Red, White, & Black, 2010). In contrast, Fred Moten (through Chandler) has challenged the role of ontological foundatlionalism necessary in such clear analytic categories (“Blackness and Nothingness”).

Second, I investigate alternatives to the ontological founding of blackness’s negativity. I here sample depictions of black aesthetics (#ghe20g0th1k, Aaliyah), philosophies of negation (Sexton, Thacker, Laruelle), and gender (Warren’s Onticide, Spillers, Edelman). I want to consider what is at stake for founding negation on the strategic orientation of pessimism, and at what cost.

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