By Nicholas Brady
I once was told in a conversation, “I just don’t buy that black people are socially dead.” In another situation, a friend of mine was asked a similar question centered about belief. The bottom line seems to come down to whether or not you “buy” that social death is real, whether it has capital “T” truth behind it. Is the sky is blue? Can black people be socially dead? In certain people’s attitudes social death seems to have the intellectual weight of Dragons and Unicorns. Somewhere behind these conversations Jay Z raps “We don’t believe you, you need more people.”
Such engagement, while understandable at a certain level, can be put in the same intellectual trash bin as “I’m black and I have seen reverse racism” or “Work is not exploitative, I like my work.” All can be true at the level of one’s perception, while one’s personal feelings do not necessarily translate into an accurate or even desirable political analysis. Theories of social death, political ontology, and libidinal economy are concepts produced in a political analysis of many different fields, such as race and psychoanalysis, the forever growing historical literature on slavery and capitalism, the black radical tradition, black feminist and black queer interventions into theory and politics, etc. This is to say, it is making an argument and one must engage the actual substance of the argument.
As a writer, I employ concepts such as social death, political ontology, and libidinal economy as critical terms of study. These concepts enable me to do both political and intellectual work that speaks directly to the pervasive nature of black suffering across time and space. They are not the only concepts nor are they original, the novelty lies in how the concept allows certain work to be done.
So when one says thinking of race as ontology destroys our agency and destroys the possibility of possibility itself, locking us into a self-defeating logic, I always wonder what they mean. Do they mean the theory of social death or political ontology has a material history that has locked us out of possibility? The obvious answer to this is, the theory did not do that, the world did that and the theory describes the violence of the world.
Afropessimism does not posit a death sentence to what blackness could be, but recognizes the world’s death sentence as a structuring condition for black life. This theory embraces the umembraceable aspect of blackness as a mode of theorizing: the question of suffering and how to name the violence that causes it. This is not a reduction of black people to suffering, but a desire to speak to the unimaginable aspects of our suffering — to see black suffering as a profound site of interrogation.
Race operates through ontology because race is a socially produced belief about the being of collectivities. This ontology may be what we call a fantasy, but fantasies obtain material force through the political acts of bodies. This ontology can also be said to never accomplish itself, so duration brings about mutation and perfection. Killing gets more efficient, forms of subjection become more sophisticated or stagnate, collapse, only to become fertile soil for another position. This is to say, this ontology is produced through fundamentally, perhaps tragically, political processes. The modern world is politically structured according to racist ontology via at least 500 years of slavery, genocide, colonization, racial capital, and white supremacist gender and sexual normativity. Therefore, race is the political ontology of the world not in spite of history, but through the force of actions accumulated across a span of time.
This politically reproduced and inhabited fantasy is certainly not stable, but why would it have to be? Groundlessness would seem to be the obvious fact and precondition, not the logical antithesis that defeats the argument.
Slaughtering black flesh produces ground, meaning, value, wealth, way-making, motivation, solidarity, “heritage” as Coates puts it. Lowering scales of abstraction one can see this violence operating in political processes and social dynamics.
See how that is not saying blackness is metaphysical or that ontology is the truth behind all truths or that everything is unchanging or that history does not matter?
Theory is not produced without a reading, it is a strategy of reading a body of literature. Therefore theory is one of the greatest tools we have in our arsenal. In the enemy territory of knowledge production in a plantation nation, one needs a strategy to maneuver through word mines. The world is a ghetto, I’m just trying not to inhale words that will choke my throat from the inside. To me, theory is different from a manifesto in that it does not demand us to pronounce a political program, movement, or moment. Theory is not a necessarily (anti-)positivist research method either. Theory is a tool, it is not the entire toolbox.
Theory assumes an audience that either has already or is actively reading a certain body of literature. This is why “high theory” can seem elitist, it oftentimes is by its very definition. Given where theory is produced, oftentimes the audience assumed is one that can or is required to read a certain set of texts, aka academics. Yet, theory can be and is produced everywhere.
Wherever you are making a reading of a body of texts — be they songs, gestures, slang, poems, academic articles, novels — one is producing theory. The terrible rap beef between Meek and Drake has produced much theorizing about the meaning of hip hop, rap, authenticity, and quality. Ultimately, the question of theory is still the same as the question of writing — who are you writing to/for/from and how much do you want to push?
So a term like “political ontology” is produced from a reading of interdisciplinary texts and is given as a strategy for future reading, not a fact. The question is not “is ontology real,” instead it is “what does the concept of political ontology enable and what does it hinder us from seeing?” From there you add the tool to your tool box and keep it moving.
Afropessimism may be useful depending on the question you are asking and what you need to explain. This is to say, in spite of what many people seem to whisper in hallways and bars, and increasingly are putting on paper and presentation: afropessimism deserves to be read. Not because it is right, not because it has truth, but because we cannot afford to throw any tool away. Our work, black work, has to be done by any means necessary. If it is dull, sharpen it. If it ain’t working, holster it and pull out something different. Or get creative. Interesting combinations are possible.
Polemically I might add, there are no afropessimists. You can stop looking for them, they don’t exist. We need to end this academic witch hunt wherein any indication that one uses afropessimist theory is met with a cold shoulder, laughter, and even the loss of a job or a grant. If you find yourself talking shit about afropessimism without engaging it in good faith, you are a coward and a part of the problem. The pettiness many academics are employing right now has material impacts on black life — you are pushing folks out of job security and health care, causing stress and harm. It would be funny that many of those who desire to talk about the beauty of black life can work so hard to destroy black folk on the margins of the academy if it were not so normal.
So, if one calls themselves an afropessimist that is also fine, but it is not an identity. At best, it might be a certain affective orientation that congeals into a research agenda and political movement, but ultimately it is a theory, which is to say a strategy of reading. There is afropessimist theory and whatever we do with it. We make it do what it do, not the other way around. The tool doesn’t possess me, unless thats what is called for.
A black writer from Baltimore, Nicholas Brady is currently a Ph.D. student in the Culture and Theory Program at University of California, Irvine where he is working on a political and rhetorical theory of black rioting. (check him out on tumblr or twitter @nubluz_nick)