I contend that afro-pessimism has not taken pessimism seriously enough. In what many consider the foundational text, Frank Wilderson’s 2010 book Red, White, and Black, pessimism is only mentioned six times. While it is clear that his pessimism emerges from a metaphysical pessimism based on an objective claim about the world (Thacker, 67). I want to push the conversation forward not through the ontology of the non- but a non-ontology. Rather that developing negativity out from structural positionality, I want to develop the other “major key” of pessimism: the subjective attitude of pessimism towards the world (67). I do so by drawing on theories of gender, and philosophies of negation.
Theories of gender offer insight into pessimism. Afro-pessimism takes Hortense Spillers’s definition of ‘flesh’ as a starting point for its analysis of blackness. For Spillers, chattel slavery initiated a literal and figurative theft of the body (206). Bodies exist as the sole possession of the individuals who inhabit them, but when the bodies are mere annexes to the territory of another, the body is reduced to mere flesh. Flesh remains unprotected and lacks a legitimized force to call its own (207). In many ways, the black body remains captive as flesh through the array of disciplinary confinements of the modern prison, exclusionary housing practices, etc. Yet the point is that black bodies remain exposed even as individuals have won the right to their own bodies. Through a pornographic display of culture and politics black pain is written in a “hieroglyphics” that cannot express its own suffering (207). Spillers searches for representational potentialities in this terrible paradox. The one she proposes is “claiming the monstrosity” of racial caricatures (229).
$$ Kara Walker’s 2014 installation “A Subtlety” caused uproar. The site for the piece was Brooklyn’s old Domino Sugar factory, in which she places an enormous sugar sphinx with exaggerated black characteristics. The sculpture harkens back to a monument approved by the U.S. Senate in 1923 “in memory of the faithful slave mammies of the South” (“Mammy Washington Almost Had”). In its monumental language, Walker’s sphinx gives the character an afterlife through figural reproduction. Lying on all fours, the woman carries the dignified posture of the royal sphinx while baring its sexuality through large exposed breasts, a round bare behind, and 10-foot tall vagina.
Controversy erupted over spectators taking selfies in front of the sculpture. Many spectators posed as if pleasuring themselves with the sphinx’s many sexualized parts. Others played coy, as if subtly drawing attention to an unusually forward depiction of sexuality. A few people of color attempted to reclaim the statue through gestures of empowerment, though they were easily dwarfed by the gigantic cartoonishness of the sculpture. Some critics feigned disgust, but Walker certainly knew what she was doing. The art object was not the sculpture, but an installation. The audience was perhaps the real subject of Walker’s art, which was made obvious by the signs posted around the space, which read: “Please… do not touch the artwork but do share pictures through social media with #karawalkerdomino”.
As far as psychoanalysis is used to underwrite blackness, blackness functions as an analog to the libido. Wilderson in particular focuses on Lacan’s process of “full speech” in a chapter entitled “The Narcissistic Slave.” He does so to establish two key findings: first, that violence against the black body is the constitutive act of social life, and second, that civil society fundamentally bars black speech. There is a deeper mechanism at work that Wilderson does not acknowledge. In establishing that the constitutive act of civil society is the process of excluding blackness to ward off social death, he indirectly implicates blackness in the libidinal functions of the death drive (90).
An easy analogy to Wilderson’s deathly blackness is Lee Edelman’s theorization of queer negativity. Making the comparison unmistakable, Edelman similarly argues that queerness is to blame for the “undoing of civil society” (No Future, 17). Clarifying the status of queerness, he argues that it is not possessed by self-professed “queers” as an identity but embodied in acts of “figural association” (17). This is not to say that people are not objectified in their queerness; Calvin Warren convincingly theorizes the “over-kill” used to spectacularly brutalize queer black bodies. But there is more to the comparison than structural positions. For Edelman, queerness is not a capacity that can be wielded by individuals but the excessive force of the outside. One of his chosen examples are the titular birds from Hitchock’s film, which ferociously arrive unexpectedly to frustrate attempts to consummate the marital scene – at one time, they are so terrifying they cause the city to go up in flames (118). The birds demonstrate how the death drive is embodied neither by “becoming the drive” (as do bugchasers) or taking on an oppositional political identity (as do queer activists), but rather by opposing politics itself (17-18). What separates Edelman from quietism, is the relentless rhythm of queerness as death drive, which continues regardless of one’s involvement in politics (140). The curious consequence of continuing the comparison is that Wilderson’s own formulation of blackness suddenly appears similar to Moten’s vitalism, as both hypostatize blackness.
$$ Much of conceptual artist Glenn Ligon’s text art explores about how blackness breaks down language. The content of his speech is fairly routine. He does not rely on a single type of address. In his colored work, Ligon reproduces text based on racial fantasies: a joke about black male sexual organs, black nationalist speeches, exaggerated black vernacular. The words he uses in his black and white pieces, when legible, is directly personal and often simpler; he speaks in the confessional first person “I do not…” or “I lost my voice / I found my voice / I lost my voice…”
Ligon uses the materiality of his medium to cut against usual typographic functions. Whereas type helps reproduce speech through a set of condensed easy-to-read characters, Ligon’s text pushes past the point of breakdown. The top’s uniform lettering, somewhat sloppy though still appearing as if taken straight from a press, sinks into opacity. Words collapse into islands of blackness. What caused the suffocation? Some great burden. A mismatch between materials and their capacities. Perhaps an over-application of ink. Too heavy of a hand.
Philosophies of negation may help clarify the pessimism of afro-pessimism. Jared Sexton routine insists on the optimism of afro-pessimism. He concludes in important essay with the line that echoes Moten’s own optimism through inversion. Sexton declares that “afro- pessimism is ‘not but nothing other than’ black optimism” (“Ante-Anti-Blackness”). His struggling is to determine if the contrasting position are in fact “in the midst of an argument that is also a profound agreement” (“Ante-Anti-Blackness”). Sexton formulates the agreement in spatial terms whereby “black life is not lived in the world that the world lives in, but it is lived underground, in outer space” (“Ante-Anti-Blackness”). Perhaps the disagreement is easy located: optimism searches within the murky depths whereas pessimism channels the alien force of the outside.
$$ Geography is essential to mixed-media artist Abigail Deville’s installation Negation: Dusk to Dark. Everything is assembled together and contained within the space of a single room. The cramped space is the site of both an archeology and a futurology. On the ground lies debris of mostly rocks but also some human-made objects. The items are strewn in a disorganized pile and some are obviously castaways bearing traces from their former lives. Hanging above are a series of black trash bags. Together, they make up a collapsed dome with ragged edges falling far into the room. Light penetrates through what could be the veil of the stars. Between the abandoned wreckage and the fallen heavens is a traditionally hung art object. A long white canvas peaks out from a mess of American flags covered in white paint and plaster. Above the piece hangs a light to illuminate it in red light. The resulting light is a battle between the refracting reds and the intermittent brightness let in through the broken sky.
French thinker François Laruelle offers a compelling counter-point. Against the philosophical promise of the decisive judgment and the psychoanalytic assertion of the power of the unconscious, he suggests the non-belief in negativity. Such negativity is not the dialectical overcoming of anti-blackness (double negation) or a structural relation to a potential product (object petit a). Laruelle’s negation is the pessimistic totality of insufficiency.
In his work “On the Black Universe in the Foundation of Human Color,” Laruelle challenges us to “learn to think from the point of view of Black as what determines color in the last instance rather than what limits it” – he calls this task uchromia (5). This proposal follows from his argument that every color has a “posture” (5). And the posture of blackness is concealed in it determination of the rest of the universe (a “black box”) (6). Cryptically, the black universe is beyond ontology. Such blackness is not the absence of whiteness, the negation of color, or the opposite of light. Blackness has its own presence. Yet the presence of the black universe is not tied to the operations of positivity, double negation, or the unconscious. It is the absolute foreclosure of being. It is the reality of nothing. Explained in more convention terms, it is an aesthetics without representation. Artistic guidelines might include: lacking a referent, refusing to prick consciousness through meaning or understanding, avoid appealing to seemingly outlaw traditions.
Alexander R. Galloway blazes the path for this new form of thought. For him, uchromia offers “a new color utopia rooted in the generic black universe” (149). His suggestion is not an abstract form of colorblindness. Instead, Galloway suggests following the revolutionary actions of the Haitian Constitution of 1804, which declared that all citizens black regardless of color. The point is not white race-denial but a withdrawal from the world of light and color. Its intended effect is a “cataclysm of human color” through the “blanket totality of black” that “renders color invalid” (149). In fewer words: it promises indistinction. It is certainly radical to suggest an alternative to the cultural politics of difference. But perhaps it is time to consider new utopias.