Frank B. Wilderson III is an American writer, filmmaker, dramatist and critic. He is best known for advancing Afropessimism—a lens for analysis that takes anti-blackness as the structural antagonism on which our world has been built, continues to turn on, and will eventually be destroyed by. I wanted to speak with Wilderson as his work has been hugely influential on my own thinking over the years, but moreover because Afropessimism provides an urgent, powerful and necessary alternate diagnostic of our current moment and American history overall. This interview was conducted in July 2020 over email and via phone.
For those who aren’t familiar, what is Afropessimism?
I think that the first people who were being designated as Black, living on a continent that was being named as Africa, were Afropessimists. In other words, as the people who were soon to be known as Arab, Iranian, Iraqi, Chinese, East Indian, and Moroccan Jews vamped on people who were, at the time, members of various identities, such as Kikuyu, Buganda, Luo, Luhya, Kamba, as the former vamped on the latter—and through this process instantiated a new world order, one which inaugurated two new species, the species of the Human and the species of the slave/Black—even as this was happening the Blacks understood that the absolute deracination of their capacity for subjectivity was inextricably tied to the emergence of capacity, Human capacity, for all others.
So, what I’m trying to say, is that Afropessimism began almost 1,000 years before the events that even I—and what I might call the first wave of Afropessimists—talk about in our books, such as in my Red, White, & Black: Cinema and the Structure of U.S. Antagonisms, or Jared Sexton’s Amalgamation Schemes, or Saidiya Hartman’s Scenes of Subjection. Afropessimism, as a critique of Human capacity and the absence of Human capacity embodied in the Black, the Slave, begins in 625 AD. From 1997 to about 2004, Afropessimism takes shape as a field of research that intervenes in an overtly conscious way in order to explain and give theoretical shape to what I have said above: that everyone’s (every Human’s) capacity to be (in other words, subjectivity, agency, identity writ large) is fundamentally a parasitic capacity; one in which the host of the parasite is the Black/the Slave. When I say “everyone,” I really and truly mean, everyone; from genocided Native Americans to exalted, White male, genociders. Everyone. No Marxist worth their salt would make a structural distinction between a soft and sunny capitalist like George Soros and a rabid-crazed capitalist like Donald Trump. To do so would be to have a conversation about capitalist performances, rather than capitalist capacity: a capacity that is parasitic on the labor-time and the intensification of work.
This is a very important point to keep in mind as we move forward in our discussion because what I’ve been seeing a lot of lately, since my new book, Afropessimism, came out, is reviewers and even critical theorists (who should know better) slipping out from under the hydraulics of structural analysis and a debate/discussion of structural violence and getting weepy-eyed because they accuse Afropessimism of lumping oppressed people who are not Black into the category of junior partner, a move they say doesn’t account for the fact that these people suffer from White supremacy and capitalism. We know they suffer! We want to alleviate their suffering as well as ours. But we’ll be damned if we allow ourselves to be guilt-tripped out of a structural analysis which says they not only suffer but their suffering gains coherence through their parasitic relationship to Black suffering! You see, all these warm and fuzzy progressives who can’t counter the first principles of Afropessimism do an end-run around the first principles and engage in a drive-by shooting as they make their intellectual escape. I’m not feeling it.
Afropessimism, as a lens of analysis, grew out of our observations during the late 1990s and early 2000s, in the Bay Area. We were seeing how multiracial coalitions (fighting CA propositions that would put 14 year old kids in adult prisons, fighting the prison industrial complex, or trying to get Clinton to pardon political prisoners before the swearing in of Baby-Bush) were unable or unwilling to allow for discussions of and attention paid to the ways in which anti-Black violence cannot be analogized with anti-Latinx violence, or anti-immigrant violence. Black people in these coalitions thought that the purpose of struggle was not simply to change draconian policies but to open up a revolutionary space where cognitive maps could be discussed, interrogated, and revised. And the non-Black folks were not having it. That’s one half of the answer to the question what is Afropessimism and how it came into being. Some of the people, whose manner of political organizing was fundamental to the emergence of discipline called Afropessimism, may or may not consider themselves to be Afropessimists; and very few of them wrote books, but I want to give a shout out to them before I tell the other half of the story. Because without their intrepid, individual and collective voices during this period in history we might not be where we are today. Black folks like Camille Emefa Acey, Hannibal Shakur, Omar Ricks, Danae Martinez, Gregory L. Caldwell, Kihana M. Ross (who now is a professor at Northwestern and has written a clarifying op-ed piece on the difference between White supremacy and anti-Blackness in the New York Times), and Sora Han (who is Korean-American, not Black, but like Kihana, Han was an undergraduate activist who raised pertinent questions at that time and later went on to write an Afropessimist book in legal studies—she’s also the Director of the Culture & Theory PhD Program at UCI), and Connie Wun (who is a Chinese-American, and also an undergraduate at the time, and now an adjunct professor at Mills College. Then there were five graduate students, Jared Sexton, Zakiyyah Iman Jackson, Huey Copeland, Amanda Lashaw (who is not Black, but White-Jewish), myself; and two professors, David Marriott, who was at UCSC, and Hartman, who was at UCB. Again, without designating all of these people as Afropessimists (and remember, the word Afropessimism did not even exist until way late in this history, 2002 when Saidiya Hartman offers the word), what I want to say is that they were raising questions about the singularity of Black suffering during this period, as we did political work in Bay Area multiracial coalitions. Questions that were being ignored, disavowed, or sidestepped in Bay Area activist circles and, as I’ll now turn to, in the academy.
The academy is where the other side of the story comes in. I’d say that Sexton, Jackson, Copeland, Lashaw and I were questioning the assumptive logic of the key discourses of critical theory: (psychoanalytically-informed) feminism, Marxism, and Postcolonialism. We all had different and overlapping points of entry but in the main what we all shared was a sense that (a) these theoretical lenses could not account for Black suffering, in essential ways, and (b) they were hobbled because when they did try to account for Black suffering the comparisons between the suffering of Blacks and all others could only account for differences in performance—they had nothing to say at the level of political ontology.
In other words, both in the streets—our experiences as political organizers; and at the seminar table—our experiences as graduate students, we were seeing how The Left as well as professors who purported to teach revolutionary theory had grossly impoverished cognitive maps when it came to understanding structural violence.
Afropessimism, to answer your original question, is many, many things with many folks coming at it from many different directions. But we are all contributing to a new cognitive map of structural violence; which, as I said before, is really an old cognitive map of structural violence; a map that can be seen (symptomatically) in the theorizations of this new position called Black; a paradigmatic position that came about as far back as 625 AD.
Again, the violence that positions Blackness in a paradigm cannot be analogized with the violence that positions other oppressed peoples in a paradigm. A large portion of the schematization is drawn (or perhaps “hijacked”) from Orlando Patterson’s Slavery and Social Death, in which he argues that the violence of any Human paradigm of subjection (such as capitalism) has a prehistory. It takes an ocean of violence to transpose serfs into workers. It takes an ocean of violence several hundred years to discipline them to the point where they imagine their lives within new constraints: urbanization, mechanization, and certain types of labor practices. Patterson calls this the “prehistory” of the paradigm’s violence. Once the constraints are internalized and naturalized in the collective unconscious of this new and emerging position called the working class, the violence recedes and goes into remission, and only comes back at times when capitalism needs to regenerate itself or when the workers transgress the rules and push back (when they withdraw their consent). Afropessimists call this contingent violence: violence triggered by transgression.
The distinction between contingent violence and gratuitous violence is a constituent element of the cognitive map Afropessimism provides, because the slave, the Black, exists in a paradigm of gratuitous violence—violence that never goes into remission, even when the slave, the Black, has shown no signs of transgression. This is because anti-Black violence secures a different paradigmatic division than the division between the worker and the capitalist. It secures the division between the Human and the Black.
So, the rituals of bodily mutilation and murder are as necessary to securing social death’s Human/Black division as spontaneous consent is to securing capitalism’s division between capitalists and workers. Capitalism, as a paradigm, needs obedient workers. Social death, or slavery, as a paradigm, needs the ritualistic spectacles of mutilated and murdered Black flesh. This is why Afropessimists believe that the essential antagonism is not between the workers and bosses but between the Humans and the Blacks.
Think about (with respect to what’s happening today) the Instagram and iPhone snuff films. If you were to exhibit a repetition of moving images of non-Black working class people being murdered by the police on social media and the Internet, what you would have are major policy incursions to bring an end to its gratuitous nature—so that workers would get back to work. (This is why a White woman in Portland can sit completely nude in front of Trump’s federal troops and not be shot or beaten—the outcry would put even many Republicans to shame. But a Black woman would not be able to do this and expect the same kind of public outcry. In fact, part of the pleasure of the scene, for civil society, would be the spectacle of her body being destroyed. Which is why I have really raw, mixed feelings about the whipping of Patsey in 12 Years a Slave. I don’t believe that that scene does the work of eliciting horror and empathy that Steve McQueen might think it was doing.)
We have to ask ourselves why is it that the more violence against Black people is visually recorded and transmitted, the more the violence occurs? The visual distribution of these images accompanies an increase in their occurrences, not vice-versa. These films may get someone prosecuted (though the track record on this is abysmal); in that way they are important. But essentially they are rituals of pleasure and psychic renewal for the Human race. They secure subjectivity for non-Blacks, because non-Blacks can look at them and say (albeit if only unconsciously)“aha, if that were to happen to me that would be because I committed a transgression, there would be something justifying that treatment.” It would not be gratuitous it would be contingent violence. Afropessimism helps us understand that anti-Black violence is not a form of discrimination; anti-Black violence is a health tonic for global civil society. Anti-Black violence is an ensemble of necessary rituals that are performed so that the human race can know itself as human and not as a slave, meaning not as Black.
I’ve always been interested in the fact that Afropessimism has its roots in California; it’s one of a number of exciting moments for Black thought that have come out of the state (thinking about LA Rebellion for instance, or on a more individual scale, someone like Octavia Butler being from Altadena, CA). Would you attribute this relationship to anything other than chance and the political situation unfolding in the Bay Area at the time? Is there something in the water out there?
[laughs] When I first started giving talks around the U.S. on Afropessimism, I really felt that it got the best reception in places like Harlem, Brooklyn, Chicago. I think that there is something to your question because I do think that the hydraulics of multiracial politics—which we critique so stridently as Afropessmists—puts a certain, intense kind of pressure on Black people in California compared to Black political communities in Hyde Park, South Shore, the South Side of Chicago, Harlem, the Bronx etc. So we could say that Afropessimism emerges as a reaction in large part to those specific hydraulics, a demand that political organizing spaces only accommodate the grammar of suffering that is common to all the people in the coalition. I never felt that more intensely than I did when doing political work in the Bay Area.
For people doing Black radical organizing in New York, there’s a tradition of rich Black intramural conversation going back well before Garvey and people on soapboxes, such that you really don’t have to contemplate what Blackness means in relation to other positions. I think that this absence of contemplation led to the split in the Black Panther party between Huey P. Newton’s contingent and Eldridge Cleaver’s; broadly, the turn that Newton’s people made was a response to the kind of fuzzy accomodation to the “we are all in this together” dynamic that you found (and still find) in California. This is a generalization of gross proportions—which many West Coast Panthers might take issue with. But I do think it is important to note that the BLA was able to thrive, ideologically, in New York in a way that it could not among the Panther contingent in Northern California.
The final part of my answer to your question: Had a person like Jared Sexton not existed in the 90s, we might not have this thing called Afropessimism. He was the one that was constantly raising the question of the libidinal economy and of the way that Black voices were being crowded out in organizing coalitions. Most people weren’t thinking like that. I wasn’t; I was a Negri and Gramsci expert, you know? But my contribution was also very important, which was that these people never talked about this central antagonism between Blacks and Humans. Everything was so issue oriented, and I was harping on the fact that no one wants to destroy America! I was just beside myself. I couldn’t understand it. I’d come back to Berkeley for this?!
Sexton’s contribution was that it’s in the libidinal economy. It’s the way that Blackness works in the collective unconscious. So, I really think that all Black people are Afropessimists at some point in the day, but it never had to become a frame of reference or a lens of interpretation. I think that I’m important to that development, but I think that Jared Sexton is really essential to it.
Who are some of your greatest influences intellectually and artistically?
First, I’m a creative writer. Second, I’m a poet. Third, I’m a critical theorist. That might be hard for some people to understand, because most of the real estate of my writing is in critical theory. But that’s the order of my passions. So, I am influenced most profoundly by the creative writing (nonfiction as well as fiction) of Assata Shakur, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, and John A. Williams. But I don’t travel the entire highway with any of them—not at the level of preconscious/conscious interests. In other words, I think that Shakur consciously writes as an internationalist and a Marxist, but I see the deep foundations of Afropessimism in the stories that she tells, not in the political meaning that she makes of those stories. This is also true of how I read Baldwin and Morrison. I love the way they wallow in the contradictions of social death. I don’t like the way they seek some form of redemptive gesture at the end of their works. For Baldwin it’s love; for Morrison—now I’m thinking of Song of Solomon—it’s what Dr. Selamawit Terrefe has shown to be a kind of morally motivated chastisement of revolutionary violence.
In terms of theorists, it’s the Frantz Fanon of Black Skin, White Masks, and it’s David Marriott and Saidiya Hartman. I have to always read Fanon in the way that I read Patterson, another influence, that is I have to read them against their Humanist desires. I have to read them symptomatically and not at face value.
Afropessimism seems to sit in a peculiar territory. It seems difficult to take up as a program, though as a “theory of structural violence,” it’s a powerful diagnostic tool. Maybe this is just the fate of “theory” at large. What would an Afropessimist political or aesthetic program look like to you? Alternatively, does Afropessimism open onto a separate term, program, or movement that operationalizes its theories?
I don’t know. [laughing] I’d be more interested in what you have to say on this question than what I have to say on it. Afropessimism is a diagnostic tool or lens. I am thrilled that so many Black visual artists, musicians, writers and the like have brought it into their work. But I don’t know how to talk about that, intelligently. As a creative writer I will say that it poses a challenge to a narrative progression. Since there is no temporal progression for the slave, how does one, to paraphrase Hartman, emplot the slave in a narrative? I think people have done that in the past by simply imposing a structural adjustment on the Black character so that, by the end of the story her/his/their dilemmas are no longer Black dilemmas but universal dilemmas.
I tried to avoid this in my latest book, but I don’t know how successful I was. This is the problem of writing. Narrative is, generically, anti-Black. It assumes a subject of loss. Narrative cannot accommodate an object of absence. But I do think music can be Afropessimist in a way that is much more difficult for creative writing. That’s a hunch. But I’m not sure how to explain that.
Are there terms, programs, or movements that exist that can usefully absorb Afropessimist theory into their functionings? Maybe this can also be asked this way: Can Afropessimism commingle and be combined with other theories and programs such as Marxism, Poststructuralism, Accelerationism, New Materialism, etc. without being itself polluted and totally compromised?
I think that commingling is happening and it’s the kiss of death. It’s like the demonstrations in places like Portland and Minneapolis: they start off as insurrectionist projects authorized by Black grammars of suffering and end up being about all kinds of other shit, like White suffering, White exhibitionism, non-Black immigration issues, and how to make the police accountable rather than how to destroy the police. They do to Afropessimist rage what White boys in the suburbs do to hardcore rap, what White folks did to jazz. They use the intensity of Black affect to mobilize the agendas of Human desire. When Professor Patrice Douglass was in one of my seminars, as a graduate student, she asked, “How do we keep Afropessimism Black?” I was so shocked by the question that I had to pause. I said, “We can’t because we possess Afropessimism no more than we possess our flesh. To paraphrase Hortense Spillers, we are always already beings for the captor. And the way of our intellectual labors will, ultimately, go the way of our aesthetic labors, which go the way of our flesh.”
Since May, we’ve seen a sudden hyper-focus on anti-Black violence in the mainstream in the U.S., and an expansion of interest in trying to grapple with it. You’ve been writing for decades on structural violence and the conditions of Black being. Having been on this road for as long as you have, what does this moment mean to you, if anything? Do you have an Afropessimist reading of spring/summer 2020?
Well, it gets back to what I was saying when I recalled Patrice Douglass’s question, what I was saying about Portland and Minneapolis, what I was saying about jazz and hip hop. My Afropessimist reading of spring/summer 2020 is that there is no way to emplot the slave, to recall Hartman, again. Which means that you cannot bring into conceptual coherence the demand that Black flesh embodies; a demand that is larger than loss. We are the only sentient beings for whom no sentence that adequately articulates reparations can be written. So, what happens is that non-Black people get off on the fierce explosion of affect that emanates from Blacks. This lasts for a hot minute (it’s now July 21st and the minute is ticking down to its last seconds). We then see the world rush in to claim the insurrectionist space that we have opened up after our blood is spilt. It’s like the year of the locust, times two: the first wave of parasites are the pigs, the second wave of parasites are our putative coalition partners. We are the host of two swarms of locusts: and the mise-en-scene of fire that we ignited has us walking in a daze as refugees in other people’s political projects; projects that were sparked by our blood being spilled. The mind boggles.
In your view, how is “civil society” faring at the moment?
The police stations may be burning and the anarchists might be fighting the pigs in hand to hand combat, but civil society itself is actually being strengthened through these pitched battles, because the idea of democracy is being battled over so fiercely (whether it’s the need to get rid of Trump or the demand for freedom of assembly in places like Portland) that, ironically, the American project, civil society, is being shored up and reinforced even as blood is being spilt in the streets and teargas chokes the air.
What do you think we’ll see happen for better or for worse?
Look, there’s always a chance things will pop off and Black rage will not be coopted by the radical, multiracial Left. If this happens it will feed the intellectual production of Afropessimist thought which, in turn, will feed the momentum and movement of a singularly Black rage. This was constructed—the formation of a Black vs. Human antagonism. It is not the product of divine intervention, even though it feels like that. So it can be undone. We must put the word “protracted” in front of the word “struggle” and move on that!
Something I’ve always been interested in relationship to your work: Historically, where we might find Black cultural objects inquiring into the conditions of Black life and offering hypotheses that resonate with the theories you and others who are deemed “Afropessimist” have workshopped? So much art by Black people is discussed in Humanist terms. We’re detailing “the Black experience,” “representing black life,” and so on—often supposedly in order to make an appeal for the recognition of our humanity. Do you think that a lot of Black art (film, music, theater, the visual arts, and so on) has actually been aligned with a more philosophically radical point of view with regard to Black existence, but gets misrecognized–or consciously reformatted and defanged–when it encounters the liberal Humanist framework of overwhelmingly White industries?
A Hollywood film producer, who will go unnamed (in case he changes his mind and wants to buy one of my books, again!) was getting very excited about the possibility of making Incognegro into a movie. After a few conversations he said, “Hey, how about this guy, Trevor, your handler or commander or whatever in the underground. How can we make him more prominent in the film; or is there another way to bring in a White character who could be kind of like a buddy with you as the film progresses?”
Relatedly: What are your top ten favorite Afropessmist cultural objects?
Ok, I’ll tell you but you have to give me some leeway: I read these cultural objects as Afropessimist even if artists who produced them might not agree with me; and even if the narrative intent, for example of books or plays, is moving in a Humanist direction. So, I’ll indicate which ones I think are unabashedly Afropessimist. The others have such a strong Afropessimist undertow that they make it impossible for the object to make an unfettered Humanist argument. But, at the risk of beating a dead horse, when I indicate the cultural object is straight up Afropessimist I am in no way suggesting the artist would agree with me. They might be Humanist in their intent as artists and stumble-bumbled their way into making an Afropessimist cultural object.
(1.) Cheryl Dunye’s film The Watermelon Woman (straight up Afropessimist)
(2.) George C. Wolfe’s play The Colored Museum (straight up Afropessimist)
(3.) John A. Williams’ The Man Who Cried I Am (straight up Afropessimist)
(5.) Cornelius Eady’s book of poems, Brutal Imagination (straight up Afropessimist)
(6.) James Baldwin’s Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone.
(7.) Assata Shakur’s Assata, an Autobiography.
(8.) Sarah Vaughan’s rendition of “After Hours” on her 1955 album, After Hours.
(9.) Evelyn A. Williams’Inadmissible Evidence: The Story of African-American Trial Lawyer Who Defended the Black Liberation Army. (Williams was Assata Shakur’s aunt. She tells some of the same courtroom stories Assata tells, but from a different vantage point. Fascinating reading. In some ways it’s more of an Afropessimist text than the more famous book written by her niece.)
(10.) Dinah Washington’s (Live at the Newport Jazz Festival 1958 rendition of Bessie Smith’s “Back Water Blues.”)
Red, White, and Black is one of my favorite and most-often revisited books. I wondered if you could speak a bit on your contribution to film theory, which has a huge impact beyond considering how we interact with images of Black people onscreen, in my opinion. Your way of thinking about cinema allows us to consider the general “gap between Black being and Human life,” and enables a reconsideration of images of Blackness on screen, but through this also throws down the gauntlet for cinema at large, calling attention to the many layers of artifice that have gone into the whole affair, namely the myth of the Lacanian subject and so on. You’re kind of grinding the whole cinematic apparatus to a halt with that intervention, right? Do you care about reconfiguring film theory, or is that more of a pit stop on the way to using film as a way to illuminate structural, epistemological anti-Black violence?
Well! First off, thank you for the praise. You don’t know how many professors told me I was off track when I was writing that book. I actually think that your question goes a long way in providing the answer itself! So, I don’t have too much to say, except that I was seeing—no, more or less intuiting—that the cinematic strategies of film, Hollywood film in particular, possessed the kind of integrity and explanatory power that scripts, the narrative content of the film, completely disavowed. The lighting, camera work, acoustic strategies, editing, and mise-en-scene explained Black suffering as social death while, simultaneously, the script, or narrative content tried to convince the viewer that the Black was a Human being just like anyone else. Now, as you know from reading the book, nowhere do I cathedralize the wisdom of a Hollywood film just because its cinematic strategies—which is to say, the film’s unconscious—tells the truth. Quite the contrary: in telling the truth these films trade in the pleasures of Black mutilated flesh. So, I read these films symptomatically, as ways of explaining how the Human (meaning not just White, but Indigenous, Latinx, and Asian) imagination, or unconscious works; how these so-called liberal, progressive, and even radical “allies’” subjectivity and sense of being is parasitic on the mutilation of Black flesh, and/or the anxiety of Negrophobogenesis. Through my analysis of film I was able to show how we, Black people, are most deeply and intensively isolated, and treated as phobic objects, not at the end of a cop’s gun but in the bosom of the liberal Humanist imagination.
But as to the second part of your question: I don’t know if film theory can be reconfigured any more than performance theory can be reconfigured. I would like to see some Afropessimist intellectuals take up this task, however. But I think at the base of both these disciplines (film studies and performance studies) is a Gramscian assumption that all sentient beings suffer subjection, first through hegemonic domination and secondarily through the violence that comes from transgressing the rules, regulations, and codes of the reigning hegemony. So film theory, like performance theory, is extremely optimistic about the power of discourse (whether cinematic discourse or the discourse of the stage) to transform reality. Bah! Humbug! is what I say. These two disciplines don’t know and maybe never can know what it means to suffer from direct relations of force. I don’t plan to write another film book. I didn’t plan to write that one—though I’m glad I did. I wanted to write a book, a dissertation that wrestled with the big, sweeping logic of Marxism and, later as I developed, social death. But Kaja Silverman, my main advisor for my qualifying exams (Saidiya Hartman became the intellectual mentor, however, when I started to write the dissertation that became Red, White & Black), told me that to go on the job market after graduate school you had to show you could do close reading and exegesis on a cultural object. So I chose film. It was a good choice and I was able to make the big sweeping pronouncements that fit my character; and I got a job at a Research 1 institution. But I’m not sure I want to do this again. Now, I want to write fiction and poetry.
In the “Narcissistic Slave” chapter you mention the “need for a new language of abstraction to explain [the] horror of the violence of the Middle Passage and the Slave Estate.” Can you outline what that language could be? And how it can be taken up when it comes to visual culture?
I think that Afropessimist thinkers are coming along with that new language. See the books and articles by Cecilio M. Cooper, John Murillo, Selamawit Terrefe, Jaime Amparo Alves, Patrice Douglass, Linette Park, Christopher Chamberlin, Sara-Maria Sorrentino, James Bliss, Diane Leong, Jaye Austin Williams, Nick Brady, to name just a few. I think there’s a second wave of Afropessimist publications that will be in abundance within the next ten years. I’m more excited about the future of Afropessimism than I am about my work. But, I should say that that fortification and extension of a new language of abstraction won’t be prescriptive. It won’t, or least it shouldn’t, tell filmmakers how to make Afropessimist art. Afropessimism is a diagnostic endeavor, not a prescription. The prescription will come from Black folks on the move—and even that can’t be narrated.
People often talk about “material realities,” “material conditions,” and “symbolic gains,” “symbolic gestures,” and it seems like when Blackness and Black people enter the equation, these categories get confused. Sometime the confusion is clearly in bad faith, but other times it seems genuine and it’s even Black people themselves getting confused. Do you think that Blackness presents a different relationship between the “material” and the “symbolic” as separate registers, much like the apparently weird relationship we bring to “abstraction” and “representation”? A marring of all of these categories perhaps?
Yes, you are so right. Blackness does present a different relationship to both the material and the symbolic. It mars both of these categories. One of the things we have to remember is that the slave corrupts the Symbolic Order. Or, maybe a better way of putting it is that the Symbolic Order cannot accommodate the slave unless the slave is Patterson’s generic slave as opposed to a Black slave. For the Black there is no symbolic plenitude prior to social death. This is the most contentious Afropessimist claim. But it gets at the heart of what you’re talking about. There is no before, no place or time of plenitude of Blackness that is prior to social death: no representational existence that was, through what Patterson calls “recruitment into social death” taken away from Blacks. Blackness is the absence of symbolic recognition, not the loss of it. Blackness mars all that constitutes symbolic beings, precisely because symbolic beings glean their representational capacity from sucking our blood. There are no Blacks in the world, but there is no world without Blacks. I don’t blame Black people for believing otherwise—it’s just that the violence of our positioning will always be there to remind us that symbolic/representational capacity is predicated on our death.
Okay, Let’s return to the problem of “narrative,” considering the impossibility of the slave’s temporal progression and accommodation in the symbolic order. I too find it difficult to parse the argument, but share in your suspicion that music can most easily be Afropessimist. Do you think this might have to do with the fact that music traffics in affect more than narrative (or at least the two are equally present usually?), and therefore can evade some of the expectations of narrative that film and writing are subject to? Do you think that commuting some of the structural characteristics that allow for Afropessimist music to flourish to these other arenas like film and writing could crack them open? Does that just result in music videos and poetry respectively?
My short answer is that’s what you and your cohort will decide. [laughing]
[Laughing] Yes, hopefully.
My contribution and my limitations are in thinking Afropessimism as a diagnostic. I’ve been happily shocked in the past ten years by the way that art practitioners and political activists have picked it up to do more with it. When students come to me and want to do more with it, I tend to talk to them in a way I would not talk to you, as an artist. I tend to be very negative and try to put the brakes on it, because of that impossibility of Blackness being accommodated through the logic of the symbolic order. The endless commutability of the signifier is what allows postcolonial theorists, non-Black feminist theorists, queer theorists, indigenous theorists, to talk about the horrors and the violence of their paradigm but also have some type of optimistic line of flight based upon counter hegemonic strategy.
The sense that words travel endlessly is part of the baseline theory of creative writing, filmmaking, and performance studies and it locates those disciplines smack dab in the middle of a Gramscian project of counter hegemony. A “free your mind and your ass will follow,” kind of thing. Why this doesn’t work for us as Afropessimists is because I don’t believe that the N-word in all its permutations can travel and change the way that other words can–for example, certain “bad” words for gay and lesbian people can be taken in by them and travel and change.
The reason for the failure of this kind of endless commutability is because Blackness is not positioned, in the first ontological instance, through discourse; Blackness is positioned through violence (direct relations of force, unmediated by the symbolic order) and it is a ritualistic violence that needs to occur itself without genuflecting to discursive transgression. So you’ve got a world of people who are not Black and who are oppressed because they’ve been put in a symbolic box that is mystifyingly debilitating and if they try to get out of that symbolic box by using symbolic tools to change their conception of themselves and the world’s conception of them, then the violence comes to them. But for us, well, the violence comes to us as ritualized practices of pleasure that are necessary for that entire other realm of people to exist as people (for whom the violence comes because they break discursive codes). And if that is the case that means the words that signify us (i.e., the N-word) cannot change unless the entire world is destroyed. And on the other side of that, there will not be any Black people and there will not be any Humans.
This feeds into a larger question about affect and Afropessimism. I was reading C.L. Warren’s “Black Nihilism and the Politics of Hope,” and he was using Berlant a bit and I found myself interested in the intersection of affect theory and these sort of Afropessimist things and hadn’t necessarily seen that much writing in this territory. So, what’s the role of affect in an Afropessimist frame or posture?
Now, I agree with Lawrence Grossberg, the theorist who wrote, in the book We Gotta Get Out of This Place, that Black musical affect—and he’s specifically talking about hip-hop, but you could talk about jazz and the blues too–is not the same as White musical affect. He says that White musical affect—The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who—is the affect of a child who has been subjugated in an oppressive familial situation. That’s the mood of, “Hey people, look at my generation!” “Don’t mess with my generation.” That is a mood internal to Human society. He basically says, “but hey, I don’t know what to do with Black musical affect.” Because the relationship that Black musical affect has to violence is not about being treated as children in this national family; it’s about something else. If you were to explore it, it’s about being slaves, continuously.
We have to remember that affect and emotion are two different things–because emotion has a path back to trauma, which is conceptually coherent; but affect is like the mood that vibrates through a mass of bodies in a big stadium. It doesn’t actually travel back toward anything as coherent as an individual trauma in childhood. So, we can say that there is an affect that emanates from, through, and between Black flesh and is most clearly discerned in music. And that it is not that same as an affect that flows through White bodies.
Where I try to really put the brakes on my graduate students, which I would not do with artists, is that I don’t want any of my graduate students to tell me what that means. Because then before you know it, you’re actually writing a dissertation based on your anxiety about being a slave. Before you know it, you’re saying “And Beyonce can get us out of social death through music!” Please, no claims, no claims! So I’ve been the grumpy old man, saying, “don’t come to me with any gestures of liberation.” However, I would like the sculptor to do that if she doesn’t totally know what she’s doing.
Right, I think that’s the thing that’s so hard especially right now. So much, even outside of the academy, there’s so much publishing around trying to articulate. “What is Black culture doing? Are things going to get better? Can Beyonce save us? No, Beyonce can’t save us, but can Kanye save us?” Many are genuinely trying to diagnose the moment and how these people function with regard to what they can get us, but why are we trying to explain these things to ourselves or to other people when they’re kind of just happening, and clearly these people aren’t going to save us—or at least their role in any sort of “salvation” won’t manifest as actually coherent or transcendent. But then, I think about my own writing as well; I always am interested in writing about this same stuff in order to ask “well, what IF we smushed that into this shape, to speculate on what about Beyonce or Kanye could save us if we wanted to, and to then try to make something new out of all this rubble rather than saying “now these things or people are politically good and effective and provide an escape route from the terror of anti-Blackness.”
It’s really important what you’re saying. Because if Afropessimism can do anything that is not diagnostic—perhaps in this second wave of Afropessimism coming along Selamawit Terrefe, Patrice Douglass, yourself, other people—it gives people permission to be iconoclastic with their imagination. And I think that’s really important. Because it gives us permission to burn down police stations and treat it like a pagan bonfire. Back in the day when I was a teenager, Weather Underground criticized the Black Liberation Army (BLA) for killing a police officer. Before they fled the scene the BLA danced around his body, and that for me, even more than the assassination of the cop, is the Afropessimist moment: is the moment of the joy of dancing around this cop’s body. And it was precisely that which turned off the White Left. “How gratuitous!” Well, I say, no! Or maybe it was gratuitous, but so what; the dance brought unfettered joy where the White Left would want no more than the realpolitik of dealing with the pigs—a rational undertaking that killed a racist cop while simultaneously catalyzing the death of Black desire.
Right, which I think is why the last few years feel so frustrating. Afropessimist writing definitely emboldened me to be more like, “Well okay, yeah. Fuck it all!” I think the thing that is so troubling is the stuff that passes for the limit point of radicality in terms of action and position–it’s really a problem of imagination. It’s not even permissible to rejoice in destruction fully. What constitutes a Black affect then? is it describable, identifiable, is it just this ~thing~? I guess Fred Moten is like, “Blackness: this other no-thing.” Maybe it’s just negative space and there’s no way of describing it. But do you believe there is some way of pinning down what that affect is? Or is it just “Black”?
I can say this, and this is very limited. It’s not limited because it’s limited, but because my knowledge is limited. This is what I’m trying to get at in the first few pages of my new book Afropessimism: “What does it mean to go crazy without ever having been sane?”
That is the dilemma that–I don’t care who you are—if you’re Barack Obama, Michelle Obama, Condoleezza Rice, Oprah Winfrey, or Frank Wilderson, or a sister in the ghetto who burned down a police station—this is the dilemma that embodies Blackness.
And why do we all embody that dilemma? Because we all embody a relationship to violence that is pre-logical. It is a relationship to a pre-logical violence while living in the midst of 200 million people who have a logical relationship to violence, which makes for a different kind of cry, when your voice screams. Everything comes back to structural violence. The unfortunate thing is that no one wants to hear or talk to us about that, but they’re tremendously orgasmically excited by an aesthetic that can be produced by that kind of suffering.
True! I guess this goes back to Jared Sexton’s work. Even conversations about cultural appropriation that have been so popular in the last few years—the difficulty of that conversation is that it’s certainly true that it’s not nice that people want to mimic Black stuff, but the conversation that needs to happen is why is this is the structure of this relation and what you do if you can’t break it, if you actually structurally cannot intervene with “give it back to us!” And recognizing that there’s nothing to be able to give back because this is the condition! How you begin to repair or move beyond that is a really tough one for artists, intellectuals and, well, everyone.
And those are the questions that Afropessmism a) can’t answer and b) wouldn’t try to. But Afropessimism can/does explain the dilemma, as you have just done. Black suffering cannot be redressed but it must be addressed, as Sexton would say. Because what Afropessimism understands is that when the world says like “you know Coltrane, Miles, etc.,” and their voice starts to get huffy and stuffy, “uh it’s an American music,” and when we want to say “no, it’s Black music!” we’re just shouting into a void.
Remember Solomon Northrup playing the violin on the plantation? That music isn’t his. The performance and the sound is an extension of the master’s project. So when we say we created this stuff we’re not even making a sensible argument, because we are the tools, the prostheses, the extension of the master; so there’s no such thing as our creation. The unconscious mind could never accept that Black people are people and therefore they create. Again, as Patrice Douglass brought this up when she was a student in one of my seminars, even Afropessimism will go the way of Jazz and hip-hop. It will become a tool for people who are not Black. Now, this can change through struggle. Be we cannot say what that change will look like on the other side, because there will be no more Humans and no more Blacks. It will be a new episteme.
Yes, I guess this goes back to the question of cross-pollinating with other disciplines, and it came to mind when you said the “American Music,” thing. I’ve been thinking about a speculative argument about, what if you took that annoying claim to Black music and you said “Okay, fine. If you want that to be how we approach this, then the trade-off is: let’s rewrite the entire history of the American project not ‘from the perspective of’ Black people, but structurally speaking rewrite our understanding of how it’s been erected from an Afropessimist frame.” Which then could offer, “yes okay, we can say that jazz is ‘American music’ because the structural foundation of America is anti-Black violence and therefore is Black people.” Does that make any sense? Creating a new image of America through this?
It does, and it works up to a point. None of this is organic; it is constructed. We’ve been in this for 1300 years, so it feels organic.
People used to say to me, “Art will be the way forward” and in a certain way it works because the art does keep the affect of the slave going, even if the narrative and the appropriation of it jettisons the slave. But the deal is that you’re gonna need your art and your gun.
The key hope, if there’s hope, is an intramural Black hope. Such conversations can help us help each other, so that we don’t feel ashamed of hating the country. We don’t feel ashamed of hating people around us, and our jobs; and we don’t talk to Black youth about positive ways of expressing their rage. If we can do just that small amount of work, of saying, “It’s ridiculous. No Jew in Nazi Germany would be scolded for wanting the Reichstag to fall,” I really think that that’s a way forward–though it’s not programmatic. But Black people constantly want each other to think about joy, love, togetherness, and community. And I say, “Okay! Fine, fine, fine, fine; but now can we think about murder and killing and burning? Can we be excited about that too? Can’t there be space for that in our imaginations?”
Okay so, could you briefly elaborate on your Afropessimist reading of one or some of those Top 10 Afropessimist Objects you mentioned earlier? A case study!
I would call Cheryl Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman a straight-up Afropessimist film because the way it is shot, edited, and the camera work is calibrated with an Afropessimist explanatory narrative (one which shows how impossible denouement is for the slave). I’m not suggesting that there is an aesthetic of Afropessimism that the film is exemplary of. What I’m saying is that the selection and combination of the cinematic strategies and the narrative strategies explain something essential about Black suffering. What they work together to explain is that the Black—in this case the Black lesbian woman, but I would extrapolate to the Black in general—is not a historical subject.
I don’t call Cheryl Dunye an Afropessmist, because she hasn’t made an Afropessimist film before that or after that. I think that there are times in the life of certain Black artists in which they are shot through with the Afropessimist interpretation and it comes into their work. I really don’t think that what I make of Watermelon Woman is what Dunye makes of it; in fact, I think she might be mortified by what I think. But, I think it’s a very smart film, which searches for the origins of a Black lesbian tradition and comes up empty handed, but along the way has all these conversations with generations of Black lesbians and also meditates on the problems of interracial relationships that cannot be solved through afrocentric relationships.
The film raises a question about how you can have a true Black relationship and the answer is that it’s impossible because relationality is impossible. It also raises the question “How do you find your origins” and the answer is: “You don’t, because you don’t have any.” I think that it’s really smart because it happens through an entirely lesbian ensemble cast. But I don’t think she intended all of this.
Another film that I didn’t mention was Manderlay by Lars von Trier—
Yeah, I was going to say. Can we talk about Manderlay?
Sure. First, I think von Trier is an asshole. If you look at his films, he really hates women so, so much. His intent is to be as misogynistic as possible. Let’s put that aside. We’re not celebrating the man as an auteur. But what we’re saying is that in making a crucial mistake, he made a really brilliant film that explains Black suffering. Full stop.
So what is the mistake that he made and how did this mistake become a brilliant Afropessimist film? The mistake that he made is that he wanted to make a film that is an allegory about the war in and occupation of Iraq. And he staged that film on a plantation. Now, had he made that film as an allegory on a Native American Indian reservation, it would have worked perfectly as a post colonial argument. But because we have a couple of really good things going on here: 1) He staged it on a plantation. 2) There’s almost nothing in the world that he hates more than the United States of America. And those are two really beautiful things because in doing that he was able to deal with the question of temporality and cartography at the same time, to show how there is no Black time and no Black space. And the film, not the director’s conscious mind, knows the difference between contingent and gratuitous violence.
As a result, the film interrogates the notion that there is a narrative arc from slavery to manumission; it interrogates this through narrative content, through narrative structure, but it also interrogates it because its cinematic strategies never allow the spectator to be situated spatially. The mise-en-scene is on a soundstage. And the editing strategies are so full of uncomfortable jump cuts that there is simply no continuity in its editing. So we begin the film without what all stories of Humans have, which is the moment of plenitude established via continuity editing. Normally, the moment of plenitude, which is equilibrium, would move to the moment of disequilibrium which would be the white man coming or something like that. And then the restoration of equilibrium and plenitude. But here, we begin with the absence of plenitude and disequilibrium—through the editing strategies, through the fact that this is now 1933 and there is still chattel slavery in Manderlay, and through the fact that there is no way for the spectator of that film to connect emotionally with, Grace, the protagonist.
This is where his misogyny actually works for him because he makes the protagonist a white woman instead of a white man, and she’s not a white woman slave driver she’s a white female communist who has come in to get rid of the tyranny of slavery. What he shows us through Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) is that whether it is the despotism of the tyrannical government like slavery or the liberalism of democratic civil society like what Grace sets up in the film, it makes no spatial or temporal difference for the slave. And I’m like, “Well goddamn; how did you do that?! You lucky bastard!”
I haven’t seen Manderlay yet, but it’s been on my list for a long time. It always seemed like an accidental masterpiece; this makes me think about some other questions that are perhaps more methodological and less about Afropessimism and more about culture at large: In your view, with these works that unintentionally stumble into this Afropessimist territory, do you feel like they work just as well if their power or insight is incidental, in terms of analysis? How much is really brought to the table by the actual intent being Afropessmist?
I’ve also been interested in various examples of white male directors stumbling into weirdly potent territories–a recent example of this is last year’s Zombi Child (2019) directed by white, French director Bertrand Bonello, which is a film about Haiti, colonialism, and zombies; and in my view, is totally about social death. People were really mad about it because he is this white guy, but I think he accidentally did something really important and Afropessimist, and his somewhat foolhardy overstepping enabled that. So I’m wondering what you think, politically and ethically, about that sort of relationship between the artist and the work?
[laughs] Well, that’s a loaded question.
I know, it’s one that plagues me.
Look, I’ve shown Manderlay a number of times; I actually have students watch it before the first class each term. It makes a lot of black students mad, because of the way they are portrayed. There’s a thing in the film, where the slaves on the plantation were placed in numbered groups (1-7) based upon what type of nigger they are. “Weeping Nigger.” “Crying Nigger.” “Clownin’ Nigger.” So that’s a really painful thing to watch.
On the other hand, I don’t have time to help people become emotionally okay in ten weeks. You know? Part of my point with continuing to show this film is to make the point that the adjective is the only thing that travels semiotically. Ultimately, everyone’s just a different kind of nigger. And that’s really profound.
I would not want to cuddle up with Lars von Trier. I never want to meet him. He’s probably unwell and paranoid, and just straight up racist. The point is that Manderlay is extremely cerebral, a lot of Brechtian distancing and so on. but if you understand it halfway, then it hits you like a sucker punch. I don’t celebrate this film as an accompaniment for struggle necessarily. I think it’s an accompaniment for analysis and explanation. I think that there are times when White people surrender their authority to Black dilemmas. I don’t think it happens consciously. I don’t know how to talk about that process entirely.
There are moments in history–like there was a moment between ‘69 and ‘71 when the Weather Underground were in a room, and they were smoking a lot of weed and stuff and thinking about their next hit and someone said, “Wait we should actually just kill White babies.” When I talk about that in class, people think I’m being macabre; but what I mean is that this is really important because it’s a moment when the BLA’s affect and authority has permeated the psychic membrane of White revolutionaries to the point that they are contemplating the ethics and existence of White filiation. I’m not saying whether they should or shouldn’t go out and do it! I don’t want to talk about that; what I’m saying is that this is a moment when they’re captivated and authorized in their unconscious and their preconscious by Black authority. Sometimes that happens to White artists. It doesn’t last, but they might get one good piece of art out of it.
So you wrote in our email exchange: “Film theory, like performance theory, is extremely optimistic about the power of discourse (whether cinematic discourse or the discourse of the stage) to transform reality. “Bah! Humbug!” is what I say.” Do you think that discourse does not have the power to transform reality? If so, then what does have this power? And maybe this goes back to what you were saying earlier about needing your art and your gun at the same time …
Yeah. I was a guest person at a reading group recently. There were several Black people and White latinx people. And this Black person said that she had a reading challenge and so she listened to my audiobook, and said, “My experience with you reading was deeper than if I had read it on the page and I had a more visceral affective connection especially when I came to the way you said the word ‘honky’. I got so much joy from hearing ‘honky, honky, honky’. There was an affective connection in the timbre of the voice that does not come across through reading on the page. And so, I think that, yes, it’s narrative but when it’s spoken it also becomes something else. I’m not throwing narrative out, but I’m saying that it does come to us ideologically laden, and the most devastating aspect of it for us is the denouement. And this is what I like about Manderlay. There is no denouement because in the beginning there is no plenitude. There is no loss. Black people are not subjects of loss, we are objects of absence.
So, look, I’m trained as a writer. I have an MFA from Columbia. My guiltiest pleasures are Douglas Sirk melodramas from the 1950s. You can see from the things I listed that I live, culturally and aesthetically, between 1955 and 1975, that doesn’t mean that it’s the emancipatory let alone Afropessimist stuff; it just means that it animates me, that I’ve found some worthwhile aspects that allow me to write without leaving the hold of the ship. I think that Sarah Vaughan’s voice does that for me, not her words but her voice. I love Sarah Vaughan. I call her an Afropessimist muse. Which is bogus, of course. But she’s my Afropessimist muse.
Or with the movie Uptight (1968), for example, Jules Dassin is a white filmmaker and he says to himself “Oh, it’s 1968. Let me take this 1933 Irish Republican Army novel (Liam O’Flaherty’s The Informer)about a sell-out from the IRA being hunted down, let me put it in Cleveland in the ghetto the day after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, and come up with the same kind of underground story about a traitor in the IRA guerilla army.” And because he somehow surrenders to the authority of Blackness–in the same way that Lars Von Trier surrendered to the authority of Blackness–somehow he ends up corrupting this IRA novel in the way that Manderlay corrupts the idea of post-colonial occupation.
Now I want to make a whole list of every instance where that feels like that’s happening! It’s also basically like it can never be intentional, right? If a White person achieves it, does it have to be a surrender and not an intentional project? If they’re trying to “surrender to the authority of Blackness” they basically always are going to end up involved in a liberal Humanist halfway project?
Yes, what you’re saying is exactly right, and it’s worse than that. How is it worse? I’ve only known like four white people who could be authorized by Black dilemmas. One I’m married to. One was my commander in the underground. One is a professor at Ohio State. And one was in the BLA. But most people just can’t get over the thought of intentionally putting aside their dilemmas to be authorized by Black dilemmas. The reason for that is that the kind of freedom that a Black revolution offers someone is freedom from recuperation, freedom from their culture, freedom from their capacity for recognition, reciprocity, and incorporation, which is to say freedom from their Human subjectivity. And no one wants to be that free; free of everything they are and everything they can be. That would be the end of the world. And then, we would all be free.