Outlining the source of negativity for various theorists may clarify the dispute between black optimism and afro-pessimism. To do so, I begin with Frantz Fanon’s “fact of blackness,” which I trace through optimist Fred Moten and pessimist Frank WIlderson.
Frantz Fanon’s negativity is the result of the “fact of blackness.” Featured in the fifth chapter of his psychoanalytic studies Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon theorizes blackness as a process of mis-recognition. It is on the street where one discovers their blackness, he says. “Look, a Negro!,” someone calls out, and he is “battered down by tom-toms, cannibalism, intellectual deficiency, fetishism, racial defects, slave-ships.” Suspending the step of the dialectic, blackness is sealed into “crushing objecthood” (109, 112).
Fanon thus argues in Wretched of the Earth that the struggle for decolonization marks the insufficiency of thought and the necessity of violence. We can call this Fanon’s becoming-wretched. Taking its leave from humanity, blackness is reft of responsibility, left “straddling Nothingness and Infinity” (BSWM 140). Each represents a path: one follows the deepest underground current, the other banished to the underworld of the damned.
Fred Moten explores the infinity of blackness. Fact does not halt blackness for him (as it does for Fanon). Moten affirms blackness as aporia – a necessary impossibility that works analogously to late Derrida’s work on hospitality. Black life to him emerges from an “irreducible and impossible sociality” (“Case of Blackness,” 188). But against Derrida, he follows Fanon’s insistence that the infinity of blackness is not found through the other. Moten chooses instead to mirror Agamben’s figures of the threshold (Bartleby, Kafka’s Man Before the Law); figures that tragically find their power in the indiscernible gap between capacity and incapacity.
Looking within black life itself, Moten focuses on the gap between “the fact of blackness and the lived experience of the black” (180). What the gap reveals to Moten is a fundamental ungovernability – a dangerous constitutive supplement that makes whiteness what it is (180, 187). Where Agamben places tragedy, Moten identifies a concealed motor of negativity. The force that propels it comes from “an anoriginal displacement of ontology” (“Blackness and Nothingness,” 739; 754-5). This is the kernel of black vitalism. Moten’s blackness is a movement that cannot but exceed the finitude of social death. As force of the outside, this blackness is fugitive.
$$ Photographer Devin Allen captured the iconic scene from the recent rebellion in Baltimore. Bearing the word “TIME,” the magazine’s name solicits a historical reading. Extending this invitation, the issue makes the cyclical statement that famous year of global rebellion is under erasure but still returns, “America, 1968 2015.” The title of the article further elaborates with the title “What has Changed. What Hasn’t.”
The image supplies its own answer for ‘what has changed’ and ‘what hasn’t.’ The portion of the image that is in focus is its background. A street quickly cuts across the foreground set off from a raised highway and an old industrial building. Above hangs two white surveillance cameras. Behind streams many rows of riot police; their faces are concealed by large helmets, leaving only their outstretched hands as evidence of their humanity. But in those hands, the police carry large batons for violently striking protestors. Clearly, this is what remains the same.
Bearing the blurriness of movement, a young Black man is turning the corner to dart out of view. His figure lacks definition even though he is the ostensible focus of the shot. As if already disappearing, his face is masked by a bandana, and he peers decisively far beyond what we see.
Frank Wilderson asserts the force of nothingness. He agrees with Fanon that when blackness tries to “express existence” through self-consciousness, it only ends up “finding only the nonexistent” (BSWM, 137). Wilderson flips Fanon’s non-ontology, which poses blackness as “a flaw that outlaws ontological explanation,” for the outlaw ontology of the non-. He does this by exchanging Sartre for Lacan. As an effect, Wilderson is not concreted with the construction of a transcendental ego, but a structural system built on the “after-life of slavery” (Patterson).
Wilderson grounds his theorization in the play of movement and color of film to find the “structure of U.S. antagonisms” as told through cinema. For him, the ontology of blackness is fungibility (Hartman) & accumulation (Wilderson), which is to say, not alienation and exploitation. No longer a subject of desire, the fungible object becomes a projective space as a “site of irresistible sensuality” (Spillers). Reduced to property, blackness is not a commodity produced by a subject but itself an object for accumulation. For Wilderson, blackness is in the “structural position of non-communicability in the face of all other positions” (58). The Marxist ontology of alienation and exploitation implies the potential of species-being and collective exploitation. Wilderson asserts the far more pessimistic homicidal fatality of blackness. For him, black positionality embodies a catastrophic force “that makes it essential to the destruction of civil society” (“Prison Slave,” 18).
$$ Otabenga Jones & Associates 2004 sculpture “We Did It For Love” displays the structural power of black positionality. The piece is a tipped over ‘70s-era black and white police cruiser. The car is not seriously damaged. But lying prone, it is upside-down – exposing its now-useless mechanical system to the observer. The sculpture shows just how easy it is to take a symbol of power and physically inverted it to become a sign of weakness.
There are further signs of distress. The car is empty, and the driver’s side door is slightly ajar. Spilling out are the sounds from the radio. Playing is a broadcast of the 1965 Watts Riots amidst a sound collage. Unlike famous civil rights marches, the riots were a spontaneous demonstration born out of frustration that spoke outside the grammar of civil society. While other Otabenga Jones & Associates work draws from the repertoire of black history and waves of radicalism, blackness only appears in this sculpture through its effects. The incapacity of the police stands in for blackness in relief.
In summary: all three accounts of negativity share the common source of Fanon’s becoming-wretched, which straddles infinity and nothingness. Moten’s black vitalism affirms the infinite movement of blackness, while for Wilderson the homicidal fatality of blackness embodies its destructive force.