Afropessimism Forces Us to Rethink Our Most Basic Assumptions About Society

What does it mean to be Black today? Most of us are familiar with the joyous Black aesthetic expression: “Black is beautiful.” Perhaps you’re also familiar with the radical, revolutionary declaration, “I’m Black and I’m proud!” Indeed, it was in 1969 that the “Godfather of Soul,” James Brown, told us to “Say it Loud.” And everyone around the globe knows about the momentum of the Black Lives Matter Movement (BLM) that emerged as Black people collectively took to the streets protesting systemic racism and police brutality waged against them. Like the civil rights movement, BLM is undergirded by a theme of hope and redemption, which brings back memories of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song,” released in 1980.

But even as many in our communities and our movements continue to be buoyed by these joyous expressions of hope and pride, some Black philosophers are also striving to articulate the bleakest aspects of Black experience as shaped by life in a society where Blackness is unrelentingly cast as a site of the “nonhuman,” and there is no redemption for Black people. I used to believe that being racially Black was to be racially black. But Frank B. Wilderson III and other Afropessimists challenge us to confront the ways that dominant white society insists that being racially Black means to be human.

What if Black history is in many ways a story of social death and gratuitous violence. What if the murder of George Floyd’s death was the result of civil society’s demand for the brutalization of Black bodies? What if being Black today is in some way? To beWhat is the slave? If all of these are true, then Black Studies/Africana Studies, colonialism/post-colonialism and queer studies, as well as the humanities, must be radically rethought.

To think through these incredibly important issues, I spoke with prominent theorist Frank B. Wilderson III, who argues that Blackness (being Black) constitutes a fundamental antagonism vis-à-vis civil society. It is this fundamental antagonism which the critical framework for Afropessimism views as a necessary feature in Black life. Wilderson, an award-winning author and a leading voice within Afropessimism, is Chancellor’s Professor of African American Studies Department at UC Irvine. He was one the two Americans who held elected office in Africa National Congress. He also served as a cadre for the underground. Wilderson’s most recent book, Afropessimism, Listed for the National Book Award for a long time.

George Yancy – The framework of Afropessimism challenges many disciplinary assumptions that are part of Black Studies or Africana Studies. I’m thinking here of basic political, social and metaphysical assumptions regarding Black humanity, concepts of Black redemption, Black freedom and Black inclusivity within civil society. Afropessimism actually forces us to rethink the subject matter of what is studied when we refer to Black life, Black humanity, and Black existence. Afropessimism forces Black disciplinary orientations to rethink the normative and conceptual frameworks of reference they use, even if they disagree. My contributions to Africana philosophy, critical philosophy of race, critical whiteness studies and critical phenomenology, often resonate (or so I’m told) with what I would call an Afropessimist conceptual and affective register. As I have argued in my own work, especially my book, the Black body is important. Black Bodies, white Gazes), constitutes the site of ontological nullification, the ersatz, and the opposite of the “human” (read: white). These are important and significant claims. My Blackness to me is a site for the to-be killed, a waiting to-be executed by the white state. Sometimes, being alive feels like a temporary respite. The Black body, though, while waiting to-be-killed physically, also suffers from a form of social death vis-à-vis its dehumanization, its abject status. But the paradoxical beauty of the Black body is that it is both inconsequential (or nugatory) and essential to the functional normativity associated with whiteness. I have also seen that Black degradation is not permanent and that anti-Black violence is completely gratuitous. Your understanding of Afropessimism’s pessimism seems more realistic. That’s where I want to begin. Talk about how Afropessimism acts as a form realism. What does Afropessimism think about George Floyd’s assassination by the white states?

Frank B. Wilderson III George, thank you. I think what I’d like to do is first ask you what you mean by realism.

Fair enough. I’m not using realism as a philosophical position within the history of Western philosophy. Hence, I’m not using it within the context of debates with idealism, where the assumption is that what constitutes ultimate reality is a mental construct as opposed to the realist claim that material objects exist independently of the mind. So, for me, realism, as I’m using it, doesn’t fall within the philosophical realist and idealist binary. When I think about Afropessimism as embodying a form of realism, I mean that it doesn’t avoid the nitty-gritty, everyday reality of anti-Black violence perpetrated against Black people. Afropessimism, in this sense, is not evasive about the constant pain, suffering, and cruelty that Blacks experience in an antiblack world. Afropessimism doesn’t allow us, as Black people, to forget how awful our situation is and how antiblack the world is. This is what I mean when I refer to Afropessimism, a form of realist.

Yes. I think that’s a good point but first I’d like to give a little bit of background to readers about how this all started. Afropessimism, to me, is more of an ear-tune than a collection of new discoveries. Afropessimism, therefore, has only one object of study, one destination. It is a diagnosis for Black suffering. Afropessimism is not like Marxism, postcolonialism, or feminism. It only offers a descriptive intervention and not a prescriptive one. Afropessimism doesn’t answer Vladimir Lenin’s question, “What is to be done?” That is because Blackness is this site of destruction of cosmological proportions — rather than, say, the economic destruction embodied in the proletariat.

Two urtexts in the humanities have been used to explain suffering. The first urtext is the archive Marxism, which theorizes a structural antagonistic relationship between the haves (and the have-nots) and the haves (and their theorization). The second urtext is the archive of psychoanalysis. This is to say that the universe is. Essentially Out of joint due, and not to the economic order capitalism, but to Oedipus’ patriarchal order. These are not two different diagnostic interventions that aim at reforming society. They start with the assumption that civil society as well as the state are always unethical. The ultimate goal is to destroy civil society and to make the state less corrupt than to find ways of improving it. That’s a revolutionary project.

Afropessimism is a manifestation of the revolutionary (rather reformist) spirit that civil society, and the state share. Priori, unethical. It is important to note that psychoanalysis describes the suffering in a way that is patriarchal, which is to state that the essential paradigm for suffering is created by a patriarchal hierarchy, and Marxism describes the suffering in a way that is economic, which is to be said that the essential schema of suffering is created through an economic order. inessential Black people suffer from different paradigms of suffering.

Afropessimism’s first principle is that Blackness, and slaveness, are coterminous. Blackness is a paradigmatic concept that is born 1300 years ago from the Arab world, Chinese, Iranians, Moroccan Jews and Moroccan Jews. It refers to people who are void of relationality and people who are dishonored in the being. This means they didn’t commit transgressions that would make them dishonored and their flesh is readily available to the whims and wishes of others. And this comes out of, as many of your readers may know, Orlando Patterson’s 1982 recalibration of what it means to be a slave.

Prior to 1982, most scholars had described slavery simply as bondage. This was when slaves were forced to work without wages and were whipped. His book, however, explains that slavery is actually a form of bondage. Slavery and social deathPatterson argues that these are just examples of what it means for Patterson to live. Experience itAs a slave. But if we hope to understand slavery as a relational dynamic, as opposed to reportage of lived experience, then we have to understand slavery’s constituent elements. What does a slave, a Black person, doing in 1850 when chopping cotton? And what does it have in common with a slave today in a luxury Bentley?

Patterson lists the three elements of slavery. These elements, according to Afropessimism are paradigmatically transhistorical. They include natal alienation (or Genealogical Isolation), general dishonor, openness for naked/gratuitous Violence. Natal alienation or genealogical isolation means that it doesn’t matter that the slave believes he, she, or they have a brother or a sister or mother or father, what matters is that the paradigm recognizes no capacity for relationality in the slave. General dishonor refers to the fact that the slave cannot act dishonorably because the slave is dishonored.PrioriIn their flesh. This is different from [non-Black]Chicanos, Asians (the working class), women are all able to transgress the oppression rules. Black people cannot transgress. We are always transgressive. And, finally, there is naked or gratuitous violence: the slave is open to violence and/or accumulation for someone else’s pleasure. This is comprehensive vulnerability. The slave is not an object for violence based on their transgression. The slave is always already, as Saidiya Hartman would say, an extension of the master’s prerogative. (This is where violence manifests even when there is no injury.

We began to see two things when we started to understand the theory of these constituent elements. One, every Black person is an Afropessimist in some way or another. It’s just that psychically it’s hard to endure the knowledge that my flesh is a compost heap of nutrients for everyone else’s existence. Paradoxically, Blackness represents the absence or inability to function. This absence vouchsafes human relational capacity. That’s hard to endure and contemplate every waking moment. Before 625 CE, there weren’t any Black people. There were Maasai and Kikuyu, as well as the Buganda. They were made Black by the imposition of social mortality, but Blackness didn’t have any prior plenitude of subjectivity or relationality. Blackness is a combination of social death and subjectivity. There will be people like you and I after the anti-Black world is destroyed. But they won’t be Black. A new epistemological order will emerge. As if there weren’t working-class people at all. A worker is a paradigmatic status that is less than 400 years old. Before that, workers didn’t exist. The most difficult challenge for Black Studies, you have pointed out in your query, is also the biggest challenge for the humanities as a whole, and for multiracial social movements.

Afropessimism requires everyone to acknowledge that in order for human subjectivity to be established, fortified, and extended, there must be a sentient being that is unable to access those constituent elements. Someone must be socially dead. Universal humanity is impossible. Semiotics teaches that the word “human” would not have any meaning if all sentient beings were human. Life requires death for conceptual coherence.

Given what I’ve said, the murder of George Floyd should not be seen as a form of discrimination, but as a ritual, like a therapeutic act which secures the psychic health of humanity by saying, “Look, this could happen to humans, like Latinx people or non-Black women. But we would have to perceive transgression in the way they respond to their paradigms of oppression for it to happen — their deaths are not gratuitous but contingent upon their (perceived) transgressions.” Blackness, however, is an embodied transgression, not a performative one. Embodied transgression can’t be reconciled to embodied contingency. Blackness lets the human say, “I am degraded, but not Priori, I’m still human,” because Black people are not dehumanized. Blackness is not deprived of any human status before slavery. If black were human, it would be meaningless.

Unfortunately, George Floyd was killed by the white state. However, I believe that George Floyd was also killed by people of color who are oppressed and simultaneously secure their status as human beings (however degraded) through anti-blackness. Tou Thao, an Asian cop, watched Derek Chauvin kneel on him. He is undoubtedly a victim to white supremacy in his precinct, but he is also a beneficiary from the psychic fruits. The psychic therapy was performed by the white cop for both Asians (and whites), the humanity writ big.

If I’m reading you correctly, civil society is made possible through anti-Blackness. The scary part is that civil society as we know it and what you see as the Human must be overthrown and deracinated if any of us are to move towards something better. isn’tAnti-Blackness is the basis of civil society. How can one reverse the decline of civil society?

It is important to realize that violence is a human right. sine qua nonThe importance of civil society. Civil society cannot exist without an ocean of violence, which destroys the subjectivity and elaborates on another group. When I was a student of Edward Said’s, in 1989, he made this provocative statement in a seminar: “Social stability is a state of emergency for people of color.” That puts the pin right on it because the media always portrays revolutionaries as violent (and criminalizes that violence), without acknowledging the soup of violence that maintains the so-called peace.

Many progressives call themselves nonviolent. Nonsense. Everyone is violent. Everyone’s condition of possibility is either sustained or destroyed through violence. You might not grab a gun. You might not accidentally hit someone. You might not hit someone.

Afropessimism strictly theorizes violence from a moral (as opposed, to ethical) orientation. There are ways to start to get to the end of your question — How does one undo civil society? — if one understands that when the day of reckoning comes, there will be a situation in which the confrontation will be in the streets, and everyone will have to decide on a side. People, especially in the United States of America tend to try to avoid making decisions. And so, one of the things that one must start to do if one is not Black — because the question how does one undo civil society is different for someone if you’re Black — you have to begin to understand that your life and what has sustained you was a sacred cow, one that you should sacrifice. The desire to have access to civic life’s rights and privileges is no longer a valid reason to stop buying sacred cows. You have to attempt to undo your touchstones of cohesions, both filial (the family or other community into which one was born) and affilial (forms of association that are voluntary) — that which makes you present as a human subject in the world.

What’s scary about this is no one can say, definitively, when/if one has achieved this. Anti-Blackness is psychodynamic. The Black unconscious is as antiblack as the unconscious human. We know this from the work of Frantz Fanon when he’s not trying to be a humanist, when he’s not trying to figure out how he and his white wife come together, which is a laudable question. These issues are something that I and my wife Anita face every day. Fanon’s work makes our conversations richer. Fanon was determined to reconcile, one to one, what could not be reconciled to the epistemological order within which we live and breath. Westerners are taught that there are solutions to problems. Some don’t. They need to be addressed. So, I find Fanon’s elaboration of the antagonism to be instructive (say in, “The Woman of Color and the White Man” or “The Man of Color and the White Woman,”). Fanon can be a bit too nimble when he offers humanist prescriptions that help to resolve the antagonism.

Antagonisms can’t be reconciled by using the tools you have (psychoanalysis, sociology, activism). One can become incredibly optimistic and forget that anti-Blackness does not exist. sine qua nonUse these tools. Therefore, you can’t really think your way out of slavery. epistemeThe place you live. It is enough to have an idea about this episteme didn’t always exist, but it came into existence with a hell of a lot of violence over 1300 years, and it will leave with that same kind of violence. Non-Black people must understand that the very structure that makes them non-Black is what they need to embrace. sine qua nonBlack people are at the verge of social suicide. In fact, Black people were never, back to what I said about plenitude, “human” to begin with.

But, I believe that Afropessimists and my book are more appropriate for Black people., AfropessimismIt will help one to see the threat in the mirror. David Marriott wrote that this is what happens when one looks in the mirror. Not in my conscious mind because my conscious mind might be integrationist like “We’re all just people.” Or my conscious mind might be Afrocentrist like, “I’m Black and I’m proud and I’m Black and I’m beautiful.” You might be seeing that in the mirror, but your unconscious mind is saying, “There you are. There is the imago, a threat, a threat to the world, a threat to yourself.” And as David Marriott has written, your unconscious then works to fortify itself against your own image, fortify your mind against your own image, and to attack oneself constantly, to surveil oneself through the eyes of others constantly.

Now, embarking upon an analysis of that will not alleviate it, but it will help you understand that you didn’t do this to yourself, that the world did this to you. That can lead to small steps, perhaps baby steps, towards liberating the Black imagination. Freeing the imagination means that I don’t have to feel guilty about the kind of unvarnished hatred that seizes me in the middle of the night, and for which even the Left offers me no outlet. I don’t have to feel guilty about hating the police before they do anything to me. I don’t have to feel guilty about hating the country or being mad at the country even though I can have a good job. Afropessimism shows how the world is sustained by the destruction of Blackness. If you can absorb that little bit, your preconscious mind can open just a bit more to allow those very, very taboo ideas to express themselves.

Afropessimism also has another frightening feature. I’ve posed this question to myself. What if the U.S. Black population could see themselves through Afropessimism’s lens? There are times when I’ve wondered whether traditional forms of Black protest, especially as they are often predicated upon inclusion, don’t further strengthen the structures and libidinal economies of anti-Blackness. After all, Black people want recognition, equality and equity, and dignity, and to be allowed to benefit from what “white civil society” has to offer. However, our desire for inclusion can lead to our desire to be excluded from a system that is structurally unjust. This would result in our social death. Therefore, if all Black Americans in the U.S. were to become Afropessimists and wanted to be part of the false category called the Human, there would not be any desire for inclusion or desire to copy it. There would also not be any reason to conform to the parasitic logics of a world that views Blackness as the abject. This would be a frightening thought for those who are able to instantiate the Human category. It would also scare the hell out Black people, I believe. What do you think?

Yes, and I want to make it clear that I think that this is a beautiful dream that you’ve articulated here — all Black people becoming Afropessimists. I’m not sure what that would look like as a mass movement…. Your question about Afropessimism and how it might frighten Black people, this whole question, takes you beyond where people like myself, Jared Sexton and Zakiyyah Ross, Sora Han and Kihana Miraya Ros, Huey Copeland and Connie Wun, Camille Emefa Acey and Amanda Lashaw started back at Berkeley. I know I’ve left someone out and that not everyone agrees on everything, but those are some the names that stick most profoundly in my mind.

We were critiquing the multiracial coalition, which had an unconscious symptomatic kneejerk reaction to Black people in the San Francisco Bay Area political coalitions. These Black people spoke out about the singularity of their suffering. We were criticizing that symptomatic response. We also critiqued our graduate seminars in Marxism, psychoanalysis, and other tools for understanding suffering. However, they don’t fully address Black suffering. So, we were not offering a blueprint for struggle, but a critique.

We are now in 2022, almost 25 years later, and Black activists, artists, and intellectuals across the globe are thinking through and with Afropessimism — it’s informing their political activism and their art in ways that we couldn’t have imagined, in Berkeley, at the end of the 20th century. Nobody is more shocked than I am. So, I’m new to the question you’ve posed. Afropessimism has just been asked this question. I do believe that Afropessimism is a critique of the entire world.

Marxism critiques the economic system. Psychoanalysis and Feminism have criticized the patriarchal, oedipal and filial worlds. All those people are subject to contingent violence and all those people are dishonored by transgression. Afropessimism can be seen as a global critique. This critique includes white supremacists and white supremacy’s victims-of-color.

Another thing to keep in mind is that the unconscious, which is found in everyone, tends to be conservative. The unconscious mind seeks pleasure at all costs. Anita was watching me and Anita were looking at me Ryan’s Daughter last night. You can see in that film how unconscious desire disregards or skirts preconscious interest’s prohibitions. The preconscious’s rules regarding marriage, worship, and civic order (and here I mean the civic order of Irish Republicans, not British colonialism) collide with the unconscious mind’s quest for gratification. Pleasure must be preserved at all cost. The unconscious isn’t going to just automatically put itself at risk.

Black people also have an unconscious. It is an unconscious that is entrapped by non-Black desires; usurped; overridden and dominated by the anti-Black imperative of turning white or disappearing. It would be amazing if we could reach a Black unconscious informed only by Afropessimism. It would not mean the end for a political, financial order (capitalism), or an oedipal and filial order(patriarchy). This would be the end of order. We would be at the brink of an epistemological catastrophe, and not of a crisis. What I’m trying to say is that on the other side of anti-Blackness people could still live and breathe and have families, but no one in the world can tell you how that would look because Black people exist beyond semiotic logic.