A Few Thoughts on Afropessimism

Just finished Frank Wilderson III’s Afropessimism (2020)—which I was made aware of through a friend and colleague with whom I’m editing a collection of essays on narrative theory and strange temporalities. Before digging into the logic and context of his ideas, I’ve got to say this: the prose and its dark lyricism hits on such an emotional, affective level (more on that later). It’s a hybrid of critical theory and memoir that pairs the abstractness of theory and philosophy with the raw, visceral aspects of life as lived. The citations are spare and it’s written in a generally narrative mode, with bits of philosophy interspersed between memories from various points in his life. This theory itself is written in a straightforward manner that makes it easy to digest, but it hits on an emotional level that seems all the more possible and impactful because of that simplicity.

In graduate school I took a fantastic seminar on Eros. We conversed on not only the concept of love but, more importantly, the ways in which various thinkers’ life experiences informed the way love factored into their bodies of work. The idea here was that logos couldn’t be divorced from personal experience, there is little reason without emotion. Afropessimism is similarly informed by Wilderson’s experiences and the narrative itself forms the books’ core, where it functions the best. Using its autobiographical elements to illustrate philosophical points. Despite the specificity and uniqueness of his experiences in life, from his upbringing to his revolutionary activities, I nevertheless found myself identifying with the truths at the heart of his recounting. One particular scene involving his grandma had me rolling, while others brought psychic tears that left my cheeks dry all the while pouring from my cloudy consciousness.

As a body of thought, Afropessimism is a meta-theory that seeks to interrogate the assumptive logic underlying what bodies of critical theory grouped under heading theories of liberation: Marxism, postcolonialism, psychoanalysis, and feminism. As a whole, the book forms an “a pessimistic about the claims theories of liberation make when these theories try to explain Black suffering or when they analogize Black suffering with the suffering of other oppressed beings” (14). That being said, I want to unpack the broad strokes of his argument, before diving into my own reactions to the book.

  1. Blackness has a “coterminous” relationship with Slaveness–meaning the racial construct of Blackness was created alongside the distribution of Africans throughout the Western hemisphere of the world. Our Black ancestors were mired in a thousand year history of “negotiating for their captivity.”

Blackness is often misconstrued as an identity (cultural, economic, gendered) of the Human community; however, there is no Black time that precedes the time of the Slave. Africa’s spatial coherence is temporally coterminous with the Arab, and then European, slave trade. The Time of Blackness is the time of the paradigm; it is not a temporality that can be grasped with the epistemological tools at our disposal. The time of Blackness is no time at all, because one cannot know a plentitude of Blackness distinct from Slaveness. The prior references of the worker…or of the postcolonial subject, a time before the settler, are simply not available to Black people. (217)

  • If race is a social construct (and it certainly is) then it is difficult to dissociate Slaveness from Blackness. The moment of inception for Black ontology coincides with the enslavement of the West Africans forcibly brought to continents throughout the Western hemisphere.
  1. As a continued aspect of this Slaveness Black folks constitute non-human Slaves while, the rest of the planet is occupied by Humans who frame Blacks as the ultimate other to their Humanity.
    • Here Wilderson defines slavery as a relational dynamic that persist regardless of the way that dynamic is performed. His understanding of Slaves’ non-humanity stems from Orlando Patterson’s Slavery and Social Death. Social death is a symbolic death excluding a Slave from participating in society. Alive and not, they exist as objects of the Master rather than agents capable of will.
    • A Human is any person who isn’t Black. Here Wilderson takes the construction of person a step further by arguing that Human is also a constructed position.
    • Non-White people of color are “junior partners” who suffer from the violence of White supremacy, capitalism, colonialism, et al. all while benefiting from anti-Black violence and structures.
  2. The Slaveness of Black folks is evidenced by the absurd and gratuitous nature of the physical, legal, and psychic anti-Black violence perpetrated in a manner that gives the world catharsis. The notion of absurdity is key, because it defies narrative logic of the sort ascribed to capitalism (profit), colonialism (land), and feminism (gender parity).
    • As a result, Black folks constitute objects within a “libidinal economy” predicated on Negrophobia and Negrophilia (as Paul Mooney ‘jokes’ on Chappelle’s Show: “Everybody wanna be a nigga, but don’t nobody wanna be a nigga.”).
    • The philic aspects are tied to a Masters’ engagement with any of his prized objects, while the phobic aspects play out in terms of anti-Black violence and sentiment. This violence is almost ritualistic in nature in the way it is carried out.
  3. This anti-Black violence dwells in the psychic unconscious of the world, allowing Humans to feel secure in their position as Humans and not Slaves.

While there are nuances Wilderson delves into, the argument he crafts is simple and compelling. However, it’s implications are, as the person in one scene shouts at Wilderson, “totalizing.” Unlike that scholar, I don’t necessarily mean that as a criticism couched in my response to the emotional weight of the subject. The challenge Afropessimism poses to non-Black interlocutors, Wilderson argues, is emotional rather than intellectual (by no means do I get the impression that it’s exclusive to anyone). Numerous folks–those which Wilderson confronts with the very ideas in his book, reviewers covering it for various literary and academic publications, and even those to whom I’ve spoken about it in person—seem particularly affronted by some of Afropessimism’s provocative claims, particularly due to its pessimistic mode.

The book is aware of its own iconoclasm and mentions as much. “Anyone who thinks nineteenth century slave narratives are reports on the past isn’t paying attention. Such a person will experience the analysis of Afropessimism as though they are being mugged, rather than enlightened; that is because they can’t imagine a plantation in the here and now” (103). Later on in the book, Wilderson connects the emotional logic of this affronted response to the football fans whose frustration with the NFL protests centered on interrupted enjoyment, regardless of the fact that it formed, itself, to bring awareness to anti-Black violence through a national platform and public figures.

Afropessimism and its theory is comforting in odd ways, but mostly because its put a name to jagged feelings I’ve had, without the vocabulary to explore or express them coherently. Much of that has to do with the history of the Black experience and a sense of impossibility for any sort of reclamation/liberation/reparation. What counts for justice when justice as such seems unattainable? While there’s nothing like that moment of recognition (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/recognition/#Bib), the questions that prompt it reveal the source of discomfort, the inter-generational pain for which there doesn’t seem to be any lasting relief.

Allow me a theoretical situation that involves taking our revolutionary rhetorics to their most extreme ends: imagine a world in which patriarchy has been supplanted by something else, one in which empires of capitalism and colonialism have been dismantled to, respectively, give workers the means of production and Indigenous folks back their land. There is no clear narrative terminus for Black redemption or reclamation that mirrors any of those found elsewhere. You cannot reclaim or redeem that which never had been “a flat line that ‘moves’ from disequilibrium to a moment in the narrative of faux-equilibrium, to disequilibrium restored and/or rearticulated” (226).

Equilibrium —> Disequilibrium —> (the potential for) Restored Equilibrium

This is simple narratological logic underlying stories as sites of change, the movement from something stable to something uncertain and back. This isn’t about whether equilibrium is restored, but about the capacity for its restoration and the underlying structural logic that gets you there. Understanding the intellectual components of Wilderson’s argument feels contingent on an intimate understanding of the fucking absurd aspects of Black existence vis-à-vis the outward threat of violence (or checking your presumed understanding thereof):

Violence in a narrative must have an explanation, a trigger, a contingent moment that makes it make sense. But anti-Black violence won’t cooperate with narrative…It is immune to rational thinking and logical predictions. It is a force from which there is no sanctuary. It is rainproof to rebuke; for it comes as an enforcement followed by the law. When violence is the law, and no the effect of enforcement, it presents the rules of narrative with a crisis; because what we have is a situation that resists retelling, for the simple reason that narrative’s causal principle, the ghost in the machine we call the causal logic (or “because principle”) of the story, is missing…The only way to make it intelligible is to leave out the parts that may only be accepted by another Black person, and even then discreetly. (89-90)

Anti-Black violence is absurd because it defies the logics of violence underwriting other forms of oppression. Moreover, the logic used to frame that violence is ordered in a manner that give others the opportunity to make sense of the act. This has little to do with their feelings about it and more to do with our understanding of the causality. Capitalist violence is directed at cajoling workers, thus securing more profits, colonial violence is directed at Indigenous folks with the goal of manifest destiny. There is no utility to anti-Black violence and Afropessimism embodies an acceptance of the bleakness of that fact, staring at the sun without blinking. This is less about change than it is the means my which we invest that phenomenology with meaning. The question others—those mentioned in the book, opponents of the philosophy itself, and some reading this essay—grapple with is what we do with this pessimistic disposition, if there is anything to be done at all.

I have a few answers to that question, based on the perspective that Wilderson illuminates certain strands of thought that are important and, I think, have the potential as a foundation for future feeling. The first of these simply retreads some of the nuances of Wilderson’s argument, which sees affective value in dwelling on issues for which there are no “coherent” solutions. Pessimism, in general, acknowledges the unresolvable aspects of suffering, those which are seemingly inherent to existence. To shy away from that is a form of nihilism, one predicated on avoiding the painful, the ambiguous, the incoherent. This makes the “optimistic” approaches to any liberation seem more like panacea than site of transformative potential. Instead, we must “embrace its disorder, its incoherence, and allow oneself to be elaborated by it” (250). While he glosses the moment, Wilderson outlines other moments in which people embrace disorder and incoherence, such as the experience of an orgasm.

In the context of Black folks, I think this means coming to terms with the concepts of social death. For non-Black folks generally, I think the process involves reckoning with the fact that “loss” is an inadequate concept to describe Black suffering and its absurdity, its defying of the narrative logic foundational to our conceptualization of the world around us.

I said it before and I’ll say it again: the challenges to this process are emotional rather than intellectual. The content here cuts against the grain of other veins of anti-racist thought. This, of course, brings me to the second value I see in Afropessimism.

Although I don’t think it does so at the intentional level, Afropessimism works to differentiate between anti-Black and White supremacy, which often seem to get thrown around as synonyms (especially in popular discourse). When not employed synonymously, they are used as specters implying one another, where anti-Black is seen as the product of White supremacy. Wilderson shows us that this simply isn’t true, historically, philosophically, and politically. These structures of oppression are different from one another. Although they overlap one another in important ways that shouldn’t be ignored, we should also pay mind to the ways in which other people of color perpetuate and benefit from anti-Black violence.

I don’t think these connections are as iconoclastic as they seem, not much different than appeals to Black men to understand their gender relative to their race.

Now, by no means do I agree with the full content of Wilderson’s philosophy, which is a bit fragmented due to his combination of theory and narration. In this sense, the aporias he himself is interested in highlighting seem to get reified in narrational act. I’m still unsure whether that underscores or undermines the ideas offered here (perhaps it is both, at once).

Furthermore, while Wilderson insists the scope of his argument applies worldwide, he does little to delve into global situations, other than his momentary stay in South Africa and an anecdote about a Palestinian co-worker who insists being stopped by Ethiopian Jews is more humiliating than being stopped by Israelis. Others have taken umbrage with this monolithic defining of Blackness. I think the sharpness of this perspective is at its best when framed as an issue of the Black diaspora, that is those people who were moved throughout the Western hemisphere during the slave trade. While some might insist that this is still too large in scope, I would disagree based on the shared historical oblivion that is the Triangular Trade. A starting point involving nothingness.

There are a also few elements the book doesn’t seem to resolve, yet which would seem instrumental to his “auto-theory” approach, and framework he establishes with it. One of these moments deals with his marriage to a White woman. Elsewhere in the book he delves into an abstract analysis, by way of Jared Sexton, of the ironic relationship between Black male sexuality and White womanhood (this section is super compelling but difficult). He does mention being his White wife’s slave but I found myself curious how this aspect of Wilderson’s philosophy fit into the everyday components of his experience. This tension reminds me of Ta-Nehesi Coates’ response to Jill Scott’s—yes that Jill Scott—criticism of Black men who date/marry White women: “for people who are really working at commitment, a relationship quickly ceases to be a political statement.” However, I’m hesitant to give Wilderson a pass for this, especially given his own interest in litigating these issues.

Ultimately, I think Afropessimism dwells on the horrific aspects of the Black experience, without trying to run from it. Many of its elements have been challenged as anti-solidarity, a point with which I don’t agree. I just think Afropessimism frames solidarity in different terms, those which don’t involve making comparisons across theoretical boundaries. Many of these elements seem resolvable with other approaches in Black thought and beyond, but this is a starting point for realizing the unattainable gap between the redemption of others oppressed peoples and what would be an inciting moment for Black folks. Of course, I only just finished the book so these are just some preliminary thoughts on it. I’ll continue thinking about it as I dive into Calvin L. Warren’s more essayistic Ontological Terror: Blackness, Nihilism, and Emancipation. Until then I’ll do what I would encourage anyone else who truly wants to understand Black pain the work encourages us all to do with its ideas. Sit with the discomfort.