Afro-pessimism’s different world

I think early 2016 Levi Bryant was awesome. He had kind of slowed down from the rapid-fire rate of posts of earlier years, down to one or two a month a few times in 2015, and then picked up the pace a bit near the end of the year. I think this post really represented some kind of turning point; although I guess his point was that the turn was there all along, and he just needed a few explicit statements to make it obvious to folks like me.

A post from a few months ago, “The Topology of Historical Time,” draws up a concept of multiple welts or worlds, worlds which are physically and chronologically contemporary and overlapping, but phenomenologically or existentially differing. Bryant exemplifies this by referencing the moment in American Psycho where Patrick Bateman professes a total, incommensurable divergence in being between himself and a homeless man he meets in an alley: “You and I have nothing in common, we come from entirely different worlds.  I can’t even understand you.”  Bateman and the homeless man obviously live on the same planet and do so at the same time; spatially, they are quite proximate to one another, relative to the rest of human (or non-human) existence. What Bateman is speaking to is the way a world is lived or experienced — beyond its mere self-sufficient existence, a world is a world for something. 

However, we are not alone in our worlds. Bateman, for example, comes from the world of wealthy financial capitalists. This is a world of lavish apartments, expensive restaurants, and finely crafted business cards. In this world, there is a language (of insider trading, Friday night reservations, and font names), a dress code (Valentino suits), an expected way of conducting yourself. Bateman, as we see in this scene, understands the question of attaining membership in this world as a matter of “attitude,” of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps and getting to where you want to be, but I don’t think it’s uncontroversial to suggest the opposite: that it’s more a matter of unearned privilege, of being whoever you are born as, than of autonomous decision-making that determines what world or worlds that you are slotted into. In this case, the distribution of worlds carries a specific political character: that Bateman should have so much and Al, the homeless man, so little appears blatantly unjust (not to mention Bateman’s horrific conduct, of course). While Bateman enjoys the unimaginable splendor of exorbitant wealth, Al shivers in the cold on the street. While the manner in which one exists may not be politically relevant, in these cases, it clearly is: ontology, here, is political.

Pardon my leap here, but this reminded me of an important question in Afro-pessimist scholarship regarding the character of anti-blackness, the structuring principle outlined by authors such as Frank Wilderson to explain the pervasive violence enacted against black people and other persons of color in the United States and across the globe. For Afro-pessimism, enlightenment humanism was constructed by way of the enslavement and transport of Africans in the Middle Passage, and while slavery is abolished on paper, its ‘afterlife’ lives on through an anti-black libidinal economy as enacted in institutions like the prison-industrial complex, US imperialism, and neoliberal capitalism. As outlined in texts such as Jared Sexton and Steve Martinot’s “The Avant-Garde of White Supremacy,” anti-black violence operates as a “paradigm,” which is to say that violence is not isolated to “spectacular” events such as a police shooting, but is “mundane,” ongoing, and everyday. In fact, to focus on these isolated events of blatant racial injustice is to miss the bigger picture, wherein race operates as a structuring principle inhering in the very fabric of our social world, influencing where people live, what they are able to do, and what they are free to think about (for a more focused analysis of one element of this equation, see Loïc Wacquant’s excellent work on ghettoization).

Wilderson picks up on this notion of a paradigm to articulate the political ontology of anti-blackness. The opening pages of Red, White and Black trace the development of “the world” of the enlightenment, populated by Humans who possess the capacity for self-determination, and the enslavement of black people (as non- or anti-humans) that was required for Europeans to ‘discover’ this capacity in themselves. In this world (the world, for Wilderson), they exist only as absolute negation, which is to say that they do not exist in this world, even if they may inhabit the same physical spaces as the Human population (white people and “junior partners”). Just as in American Psycho, we find passers-by living in different worlds. What Afro-pessimism offers us, however, is an enhanced specificity of how to define a world and where it ends: in gratuitous racial violence, ranging from starvation due to lack of resources to brutal murder at the hands of a rich financial executive.

Now, the predictable rejoinder would be that this is not a case of different worlds, but merely of structural differentiation (or perhaps even mere misfortune) within the same world. Why bring in the metaphysical notion of world to explain a social or political situation? The answer is that it’s a useful analytical tool to grasp the pervasive and overarching differences in experience between groups. It’s a difference of worlds because the worlds are experienced differently. It doesn’t have to be a theological matter of this world versus heaven or hell; if we know that anti-black violence is omnipresent and ongoing, and if that violence is so significant that it alters what seems like the very fabric of being on which one resides, then we may as well call a spade a spade, or a world a world.

In this way, a world isn’t necessarily metaphysical or transcendent to physical, material existence — it doesn’t require theology. A world can be a social or political arrangement, and sometimes the differences in how white people and black people seem to experience the world might as well be unbridgeable even if they technically occur on the same physical plane of existence. Anti-blackness is, quoting Jared Sexton, “pervasive, regardless of variance or permutation in its operation across the better part of a millennium,” and it “functions as if it were a metaphysical property” even if there is not literally some metaphysical division between the white world and black people.

None of this is to suggest that the world of white supremacy is exhaustive of all worlds. Certainly, Wilderson theorizes that secondary social conflicts (in which he groups sexism, classism, and heteronormativity, for example) are all built upon the fulcrum of anti-blackness and therefore occur within its world, between members of its population. Perhaps we could say that the world of white men is itself a world within the world of enlightenment humanism. Certainly, there are also worlds with less at stake politically (although that qualification is always up for debate) — the world of model train fanatics, or the world of server farms that are connected to the Internet, or the world of gaseous matter that makes up Jupiter. Because worlds are experienced, they may be overlapping and contemporaneous, and there are many more worlds than any of us can comprehend.




2 thoughts on “Afro-pessimism’s different world

  1. Pingback: Afro-Pessimism’s’different world’ | Larval Subjects .

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