Die Lit, or the art of being ontological terror

Die Lit, or the art of being ontological terror

(Paper Presented at Global Debate Symposium in the Kritikal Lab, July 7th, 2019)

I don’t usually like to reflect on my writing for a public audience. I find in every reflection I place the words of who I once was into the context and constellation of my present situation. Thus, every re-reading becomes a misreading of even myself. I’ve received tons of emails from high schoolers in debate reading my work wanting me to reveal the meaning behind it and it’s been this issue which has prevented me the most from responding. In order to read myself, I too must return to the structure of feeling which undergirded the moment in time and space in which it was written and even then, I still always feel outside of myself.  There, I either continue to relate, feel repulsed and abhorred, or feel enlightened in inventive new ways. There are times when reading versions of my past self in writing that I find myself lost in the nature of who that person might be. Always applying empathetic identification with someone who is me, with someone who isn’t me. But, in being asked to read these two different questions together, “On the Prospect of Weaponized Death” and “Black Dada Nihilismus,” in the context of my current situation I thought might try to answer some of those questions by also producing more questions for us to explore together.


The best place for me to draw the connection between these two pieces and the questions of art and activism that I was asked to reflect on can be revealed in the poem I wrote at the start of the second section of  “On the Prospect of Weaponized Death.”


learning to die

in the anthropocene

must be done

for those

who were never invited

to the anthropos too[1].


Albert Camus, the French Algerian Philosopher, once wrote in his book, The Myth of Sisyphus, that, “There is only one really serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Deciding whether or not life is worth living is to answer the fundamental question in philosophy. All other questions follow from that…”[2] I first read this quote as a freshman in undergrad and while at the time – as a young black boy struggling with suicidal ideation and depression for my entire life – I found the statement to be profound and illuminating, engaging more critically with Afro-pessimist theory while at the same time of being an activist in Baltimore city made me begin to question a crucial aspect of its profundity.  Deciding whether life is worth living. In a way, the scene that opens “On The Prospect of Weaponized Death,” is a scene that answered that question for me with a horrifying lucidity. The scene revealed first, that from the positionality of the Black, there is no decision in the matter of life and living for that decision is sutured to a matrix of violence of a magnitude so great that speaking of it can only lead to accusations of exaggeration and endless disavow. Second, that the mundanity of the violence, the everydayness of it, presents a form of absurdity that it seems Camus was incapable of imagining. The question then is not whether life is worth living but rather why not death instead?


That is the truly suicidal question that even Albert Camus paled in asking. Deciding whether or not, to not be or to be is to answer the fundamental question in philosophy. All the other questions follow from that. But, when life is forgone from you, since life exist on the other side of the color-line, one begins to question the assumptive logics of life. Indeed, why would I want to live in a world where my being is non-being? Where I am trapped in saying I’m trapped since this language, this English, with its subjects and its predicates, its nouns and its verbs, its rhythms and its poetries, all stem from a metaphysical violence which opened the World to my body as Black and my being as Death. It was my debate coach Iggie Evans who was the first to tell me that all I have to do in this paradigm, in this simulation of Being, is stay black and die. It was the first real critique of the metaphysics of life that I had ever heard. Stay black and die.


Yet, what of those of us, who have considered suicide when Blackness isn’t enough. Here, I think of Marshawn McCarrel who while on the frontlines of resistance in the Movement for Black Lives proved that Huey Newton’s distinction between reactionary and revolutionary suicide are distinctions without much meaning in the life of the Black. Here, I think of all the Black debaters who upon encountering Afro-pessimism while also being living body-beings in the worlds described therein encountered panic attacks, anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts as well. Here, I think of all the activist and organizers who use “burnout” as a synonym for the unbearable weight of dealing with the persistence of gratuitous violence, natal alienation, carcerality and social death that continues to haunt the specter of Black being.


This is where my thought comes to take up Calvin Warren’s. Warren writes of his newest book, Ontological Terror that, “Ontological Terror meditates on this (non)relation between blackness and Being by arguing that black being incarnates metaphysical nothing, the terror of metaphysics, in an antiblack world. Blacks, then, have function but not Being—the function of black(ness) is to give form to a terrifying formlessness (nothing).”[3] Stay black and die. Stay nothing and die. Same difference. “On the Prospect of Weaponized Death” is an account of my realizing of this inessential difference in a way that overwhelmed me with its clarity. In the moment the police raised their guns at us the simulation and the Real eclipsed one another and the horrifying thing that it revealed was that I had very little say over whether or not I lived or died. It was their decision whether or not that day was going to end in slaughter or not. So then, I said to myself, perhaps, it is better to know how one would prefer to die rather than live.


A good friend of mine once said I had an obsession with this. She said to me, with tears welling in her eyes, “You live your life always in relationship to your Death,” and I agreed. But, I had never overcome my fear of it. I had been too afraid of being nothing, of experiencing nothing, and living with/as nothing. Kendrick Lamar writes in his Buried Alive Interlude, “Lookin’ in the mirror, I’m embarrassed // I’m feelin’ like a suicidal terrorist // react like an infant whenever you are mentioned // Mind over matter never worked for my nemesis.”[4]


Living black life is like living buried alive under the weight of a material simulation that reifies its existence in and through the continued circulation of Black death. Mind over matter never seems to put an end to it and infantilization is indeed part and parcel of the descriptive statement of this paradigmatic elaboration of Blackness as Nothingness. But to feel like a suicidal terrorist is to take a different relationship to the relationship of Blackness and Death. I’ll let Lamar explain himself. When asked to explain what he meant by suicidal terrorist he stated, “It’s me being in denial. When I say buried alive, that means I might kill myself over everything that’s happening. The women, the money. That’s a metaphor for me basically saying, drowning yourself in that, and not being able to come back. ‘Lookin’ in the mirror I’m embarrassed.’ I’m embarrassed with what’s going on, and I’m in denial of it. And saying I’m a suicidal terrorist, I might kill myself over it.”[5]


There’s a different kind of denial that happens at the paradigmatic level in regards to the ongoing violence dealt on and upon the Black body, but the metaphor sticks the same. To exist oneself in an anti-Black world as a Black body one has to engage in a certain form of denial. Women, Money, Life – I am greater than Nothing. Warren again writes: “The puzzle of blackness, then, is that it functions in an antiblack world without being—much like “nothing” functions philosophically without our metaphysical understanding of being, an extraordinary mystery. Put differently, metaphysics is obsessed with both blackness and nothing, and the two become synonyms for that which ruptures metaphysical organization and form.”[6] To feel like a suicidal terrorist is to take this nothingness that we are, that we have been made to be and exist in a fearless relationship to this endless relationship to death. To lean into it. To be or not be as we are, as they’ve made us, as we are made to be represented and re-presented within this surrealist system of semiotics. This is the art of being ontological terror. Black dada nihilismus. To hell with the World, its way and its function. To hell with Value, its distinction and clarity. To hell with Answers and the rule of the Understanding, another world awaits us. A Blackened World. Warren once more states, “Being claims function as its property (all functions rely on Being, according to this logic, for philosophical pre-sentation), but the aim of black nihilism is to expose the unbridgeable rift between Being and function for blackness.”[7]


With the rise of this notion of the Anthropocene, the problem of Man reaches a new horizon. The question of extinction, of gratuitous annihilation, that had once been solely the locus of violence for those incarcerated in a state of non-being has opened the door for yet another ontological paralysis and perhaps, a shift in the simulation of Man. What does it mean for the World to End? For there to be nothing left? If anything at all, it means the eclipsing of this simulation by a reinstantiation of a Real unknown to it, to us, to all. Black dada nihilismus is a theory of invention, it is an artpractice as Virgil Abloh will call it. It takes this metaphysics of life and submits to it radical Black critique while engaging in invention, in creation ex nihilio. It creates in the gaps “between nothingness and infinity” as a means to produce “the absolute overturning, the absolute turning of this motherfucker out,”[8] as Fred Moten might call it. Indeed, if “On the Prospect of Weaponized Death,” was the moment of realizing the imperative of Iggie’s “Stay Black and Die,” then Black dada nihilismus is an amendment aimed at answering how should one die while Black, while Nothing, while in endless relation to Death. Black dada nihilismus’ says, “Stay Black, Die Lit.”

[1] John Gillespie, “On The Prospect of Weaponized Death,” Propter Nos, no. 2 (2017): 6.

[2] Albert Camus, “The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays (J. O’Brien, Trans.),” New York: Vintage International, 1955, 9.

[3] Calvin L Warren, Ontological Terror: Blackness, Nihilism, and Emancipation, Duke University Press, 2018, 5.

[4] Kendrick Lamar, “Buried Alive Interlude,” released November 2011, track 7 on Drake’s Take Care

[5] Rose Lilah, “Kendrick Lamar Talks ‘Buried Alive’ & Drake,” hotnewhiphop, 2011.

[6] L Warren, Ontological Terror: Blackness, Nihilism, and Emancipation, 6.

[7] L Warren, 6.

[8] Fred Moten, Blackness and Nothingness (Mysticism in the Flesh), South Atlantic Quarterly, vol. 112, 2013, 742, https://doi.org/10.1215/00382876-2345261.

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