First published in the Sociological Review.
A few thoughts on the uncomfortable, fragile strangeness of black [-ness, trauma, consciousness, and ‘community’].
noir (adj.) French – trans.: dark, black
le noir (n.) French – trans.: dark, black, the black, the dark, darkness, blackness, black person.
Thinking, darkly (sombrement). To posit blackness is to enter into a series of pacts. There is a double, double bind at work. Blackness is, from the outset, always already devoured by its own darkness.
To first elicit blackness one begins from darkness – the aggregation of violent history, and the sensual proximity of that history in the present. Present: the result of a transition from unfolded (ex-plicare) to folded; today, this violence is as hidden as it is open – marauding while disguised inside the normative relations of the occult. Look between the news; listen for the silent violence between the gun shots. It is devious, and insouciant; it is, of course, what makes the project of blackness both necessary and important. This is the urgency of concern. But, tragically, necessity educed by evils suffered serves to constantly submerge blackness into a darkness that delivers both hope (mattering when mattering is hard) and despair (never mattering enough), ensuring the snare of the latter as it goes. Legitimating (the epistemic, communitarian, and personal project of) blackness is to presuppose the darkness of, inside, and around black bodies – this is ontic injustice, violence, and victimhood. Concern, then, begins inside its own limits. There is no outside – just survival within, with luck.
Then, the second bind. This first darkness doubles, as blackness itself must be presupposed in the violent attempt to demand space for its understanding. This action sets the limits of any endeavour that seeks to understand it. Blackness is. Fact. There is no outside, and therefore the possibility that blackness might happen differently, or not happen at all, cannot be legitimately considered. Lovecraftian horror unfolds as alternatives try to flee only to either barricade themselves inside laws of noncontradiction, where race (blackness) does not exist, yet in positing its nonexistence it comes alive; or shallowly survive through the wilful ignorance of blackness’ hold as a powerful, normative idea.
Dolorously, blackness is always-already violent, and always-already black. These paradoxes cripple hope, at the very moment that we hope for alternatives. Blackness cannot afford not to exist, and as soon as it exists it plunges necessarily into its own subjugation. This is loss whose only alternatives are losses, losses each dressed in the Emperor’s new clothes. Darkness. Matière noire. Trou noir.
These pacts suffocate. Their binds set us continually on an anxious course towards frustration, all the more anxious when the ‘eternal return’ rides unnoticed beneath the matters of concern whose grip anaesthetises: revolutionary songs, justice campaigns, impassioned protest, the eclipse of martyrs, books that afford us language, and tools of all denominations. We’re distracted. “What allows”, Ash Amin writes, “in certain historical moments, [for] the hard-won achievements of antiracism [to] be comprehensively undone […] is there a temporal logic to race, an evolutionary dynamic that maintains racial legacies close enough to the surface to spring back with force?”[i] All manner of affects have been mobilised to undo, escape, re-ontologise, broaden, embrace, discredit, and overpower, pulling in all manner of directions. Some sagged the leaden strings and explicated the ill-articulated notes – this where our stories, concepts and tools emerged. Others tried to run, hoping to corral a new planetary community into being. Some faced the chimera: (desperately) Stokely declared, ‘I am black, therefore I am’ – to convince whom? we might ask. Others tried to resist the void, from Ella, to grime’s 140 beats per minute; from James and Nina’s love, beauty, and pride, to memory clinging onto pride against time – “ohhh, Malcolm, do you remember Malcolm, do you remember him, Malcolm?”. Some imagined otherwise, Audre, Toni, and Alice enacted new re-visions – trembling, tearing and ‘worrying the line’ of history[ii], as the blues trope implores; and others just believed in better: because there is hope, as Sylvia Wynter consoles – there, there – there is ‘always something else besides the dominant cultural logic going on’[iii]. This is hope in touching proximity to the conditions of its own defeat. Speak not of revolution until you are willing to eat rats to survive. All of this, yet dark metamorphisms abound. Somehow, the putrid taste still lingers, mixed sometimes – as if by the Greek goddess Äte – with the sweetest, most intoxicating fruits. Shallow, earthly, victory – only ever momentary.
The ephemerality and sourness of victory imitates the contradictions of blackness – cosmologically both absolute absence and pure presence; it haunts; it is ungraspable; it is meontic[iv] nothing – not even nothing (in the way that there is absolutely nothing outside of substance for Spinoza), but something that is eerily nothing. This is nothingness: elusiveness expressed tangentially by things not seeming as they should. This strangeness, as Timothy Morton has argued, is analogous to what Lacan says about pretence: ‘What constitutes pretence is that, in the end, you do not know whether it is pretence or not’ (Le Seminaire, 48). And so the ‘remainders of race’[v] persist unaffected, yet affecting, in a cruel refraction of Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau’s ‘Doorman’, from the eponymous Der Letzte Mann [The Last Laugh] (1924). Those who have asked ‘why race, why?’[vi] have found themselves disappointed. Those that have turned to what race does[vii] or just its fragile performance[viii], similarly, commit to chasing shadows, after-images, or something that is always already past. So, still, darkness; ‘racism does its most essential work in the shadow of the very attempt to explain it’.[ix] The work described above is urgent but can only ever be incomplete.
Our Icarian theories, being both too soon to foreclose, and too late listen, are ill-equipped to engage blackness on its own terms. While hoisted far above the stage, safely amid the rafters, the object of our desire looks down upon our confused dramaturgy – spitefully, ‘race [continues to] work with and in the service of racism’.[x] In Book II of Plato’s Republic, renewing Thrasymachus’ defence of injustice contra Socrates, the two brothers, Adeimantus and Glaucon, argue for the irresistible, though forbidden, attraction of an unjust action when one is guaranteed to get away with it. They describe a condition of absolute negative freedom; the same incognito, gleeful negative freedom that today befalls race. We lack a word to describe such a condition, and herein we begin to understand our predicament. Blackness abounds outside our attempts to moor it – not because it doesn’t exist, but because it exists too greatly. It can reinvent, reshape and reappear ad infinitum, and the concepts we have access to are inadequate. We awake already buried inside the eventual tomb of the endeavours only tentatively begun.
We are lost in the dark. Dark because we are always already inside the very thing we are intending to think about (blackness); it is always already doing its work through us. Naming its dislocated fragments as race, racism, Jim Crow, slavery, nappy hair, the Hottentot Venus, or focusing simply on its after effects (the cruel, deviant injustices that punctuate human time, torn across mutilated bodies), is to perpetuate a series of false immediacies. Blackness is all of these things and none of them. Inhabiting, debating, and fighting over these fragments allows our participation in a common, relational realm of exchange inside whom we intimately produce meaning. But the seeming factual reality we awake into, the Aristotelian present-at-hand, a reality which feels real to us in this ‘metaphysics of presence’ sense, is kindred with Lacan’s Big Other, here, this is the once-removed illusion that ensures the constant reinstatement of the darkness described earlier. This is a subtle, parabolic suspension above the elemental conditions of our own emancipation. That emancipation is no less than the abandonment of this false reality. Racism, and the countervalent movements valiantly, if (in this way) vainly, mobilised against it, are dislocated fragments of a force so temporally vast, spatially extant, and strange that we are unable, or unwilling, to attempt to grasp its entirety. Through race and racism, we try to to turn away, but there is no “away”. The ant on the Mobius strip will always return to GO. The myth that blackness (as race (as difference (as difference-in-itself))) can be overcome is as damaging to the cause of improving life’s quality as the posited threat itself. It encourages a reactionism that continually ensures its own coming-apart. This has to be defeat. We should not protract it any longer. The acceptance of this darkness, this defeat, permits the sort of desperation otherwise too counterintuitive to be entertained. Anti-racism is at its most powerful when it accepts that its work is futile. Darkness.
[i] Amin, A. (2010) ‘The Remainders of Race’. Theory, Culture and Society, 27(1): 1-23.
[ii] Wall, C. (2005) Worrying the Line: Black Women Writers, Lineage, and Literary Tradition. University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill.
[iii] Wynter, S. in Scott, D. (2000) ‘The Re-Enchantment of Humanism: An Interview with Sylvia Wynter’. Small Axe, 8: 164.
[iv] Tillich, P. (1951) Systematic Theology, vol. I. University of Chicago Press: Chicago. Where a distinction is drawn between meontic nothing (nothing-ness; non-Parmenidean) and oukontic nothing (absolute nothing; Parmenidean absoluteness).
[v] Amin, A. (2010) ‘The Remainders of Race’. Theory, Culture and Society, 27(1): 1-23.
[vi] Lentin, A., 2015. ‘What does race do?’ Ethnic and Racial Studies, 38(8): 1401-1406.
[vii] Swanton, D. (2010). ‘Sorting bodies: Race, affect, and everyday multiculture in a mill town in northern England’. Environment and Planning A, 42: 2332-2350.
[viii] Nayak, A. (2011). ‘Geography, race and emotions: social and cultural intersections’. Social & Cultural Geography, 12(6), 548-562.
[ix] Sexton, J. (2008). Amalgamation Schemes: Antiblackness and the Critique of Multiracialism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
[x] Lentin, A., 2015. What does race do? Ethnic and Racial Studies, 38(8), p.1401-1406.
[xi] Nayak, A. (2011). ‘Geography, race and emotions: social and cultural intersections’. Social & Cultural Geography, 12(6), 548-562.
[xii] Sexton, J. (2008). Amalgamation Schemes: Antiblackness and the Critique of Multiracialism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press
[xiii] Lentin, A., 2015. What does race do? Ethnic and Racial Studies, 38(8), p.1401-1406.