My only hope
is that someday
we might put a stop
to the violence
that makes even Children
accountable for an Idea
that has for so long preceded
their being here.
- future ancestors
Under the rubric of the Transcendental I[i], the limits of the transformation of knowledge post-Sixties were the coordinates of the World as-such, the coordinates of Western Civilization itself and its coloniality/now neo-coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Knowledge. In order to exit the gravitational pull of the conceptual repertoire of Man, we must continue unravelling our non-standard analyses of the ethno-class genre of Man so that we may put an end to a “racial calculus and a political arithmetic that were entrenched centuries ago.”[ii] What to make of this racial calculus? This political arithmetic? These centuries of entrenchment? We are confronted here with questions and problems which all intersect at the nexus point of the Negro. The ‘Negro’ as Problem, as the “Ultimate Chaos”[iii] in the foundations of Universal Logic. The historical longevity of this confrontation in this moment necessitates a broader set of questions and queries about the nature of two sets of passing problematics: the problem of the Negro and the problem of the Problem. If the beginning of metaphysics starts with asking: Why is there something rather than nothing? Let the beginning of our metaphysics start at the metaphysics of the Problem.
Why are their Problems rather than No-Problems? Why is there War rather than No-War? While the following question may seem trivial in the outset, for what it is worth, I put plainly, if the problem of the Negro is infinite, then the Problem of the Problem is infinity2. For every Negro that knows knows we are at war. And where there is room for the Problem, there is room for the re-invention of the Negro through differential means. Or rather, there is room to re-compose and re-present the axiom of anti-Blackness in such a way as to insist on its futurity while simultaneously rendering its performance differentiated. This malleable fungibility, this transfer principle of abjection, that makes up the Negro being-as-problem is why, for instance, Hortense Spillers writes, “I describe a locus of confounded identities, a meeting ground of investments and privations in the national treasury of rhetorical wealth. My country needs me, and if I were not here, I would have to be invented.”[iv] Is it possible that there must be a Problem? And that insofar as there is “Country” which is the “locus of confounded identities,” the “meeting ground of investments and privations,” insofar as the coordinates, conceptual appendages, and sense of things are structured by what Sylvia Wynter understands as the “ethno-class genre of Man,”[v] that the Negro will continue to be needed as that Problem?
One now sees how the ontology of problematics are funneled through a spatiotemporal conundrum – that of finitude and a (sensorial) infinitude – which is not reflexive of the fact that Blackness and the existence of Problems more broadly, as ontological facts, are radically contingent, but rather reflexive of the fact that the historical contingency of violently constituted Blackness has unraveled the potentially infinite constitution of anti-Blackness. In the vein of Jean-Luc Nancy, “[T]here is no ‘case’ or ‘type’ of sense apart from this infinitude related to a finitude determined as truth. Sense is just that, and all its sense resides there.”[vi] By investigating here, the case of Blackness[vii], what this paper seeks to address is the daunting possibility, after 500 years of struggle, that the finite problem of anti-blackness (historicization), a problem which has become essential-yet-never-necessary to the machinations of Modernity (ontologization), has potentially been made infinite and could potentially be made ever-more infinite via the transfinite category of the Problem. We must be clear: Our issue here is one of violence and the ontologies that violence creates. Can there ever be an end to Black being as Problem? And furthermore, can there ever be an end to the Problem of Having a Problem itself?
What remains to be said about this Man/Negro – Human/Problem Manichaeism is the anxiety-inducing question that Afro-pessimism continually raises, namely: Will this ever end? The answer to such a question I am nothing but uncertain. However, the tradition in Black thought is to assume Liberation as the inevitable result of black struggle. And it is time that the position of agnosticism towards the political soteriology of Liberation is given more intellectual consideration. It is a teleological account of black history and struggle that articulates an “Up From Slavery” marked by a finitude which renders anti-blackness incoherent. The story goes that by denying or becoming skeptical of a future of Black Liberation one does the history of Black struggle a grave injustice, one cannot see the “empirical” progression of Black life since servitude, one “suffers from a failure to understand failure.”[viii] This argument, written in and through the figure of the Ancestor, is found especially in the work of those who wish to critique what is thought to be Afropessimism’s sick fascination with pessimism. As the lucid and iconic black philosopher, Lewis Gordon writes:
The slave revolts, micro and macro acts of resistance, escapes, and returns help others do the same; the cultivated instability of plantations and other forms of enslavement, and countless other actions, were waged against a gauntlet of forces designed to eliminate any hope of success. The claim of colonialists and enslavers was that the future belonged to them, not to the enslaved and the indigenous. A result of more than 500 years of conquest and 300 years of enslavement was also a (white) rewriting of history in which African and First Nations’ agency was, at least at the level of scholarship, nearly erased. Yet there, was resistance even in that realm, as Africana and First Nation intellectual history and scholarship attest. Such actions set the course for different kinds of struggle today[ix].
However, rather than honoring the struggle of Black Ancestors, this account romanticizes struggle itself by making struggle an account of Glory and Splendor absent from Horror and Violence. One cannot speak of the “500 years of conquest” or the “300 years of enslavement” without reducing the numbers “500” and “300” to a simple quantitative reduction. These centuries of conquest and enslavement are marked by a relentless surveillance, unbounded power, and the erasure of agential capacity. One simply cannot mention the cultivated “instability of plantations and other forms of enslavement” without meditating deeply on the stable practice of sheered flesh, indescribable suffering, and gratuitous violence of millions of made-into-Nothing sentient beings that had their existence cut short permanently simply by entering the Blood-Stained Gate which has sense become the Portal of Being, “the Door of No Return,”[x] to which we are now always already born into and under. One cannot speak of “Slave revolts” and “Escapes” without thinking about the incalculable psychic terror that each revolt and escape entail nor the generational trauma recycled in and through such dyer micro and macro acts of resistance. And finally, one cannot speak of these actions which “set the course for different kinds of struggle today” without thinking: Is that what the meaning of all this struggle is? Did our Ancestors struggle simply for us to have, “different kinds of struggle today?” And isn’t that exactly what the “afterlife of slavery”[xi] is conceptually meant to describe? The horrifyingly true fact that the history since slavery is nothing but a history of trying to resist the consistently transforming regimes of slavery?
What I hope you find in this logic is the roots of a more considered pessimism. For if Afro-pessimism is symptomatic of anything, it is symptomatic of a de-romanticization of struggle and an radical call for this coercive necessity of black struggle to end. Therefore, it is not that Afro-pessimist denounces ancestral struggle or the need for continued struggle it is simply that Afropessimism begins to raise questions regarding the possibility of struggle’s finitude. It consistently raises the question: Will this ever end? For what ancestral struggles truly reveal are the spatiotemporal depths of the metaphysical violence of living one’s sentience as a problem. If we have been struggling for 500 years, what must happen to ensure that there is not another 500 years and then, another 500 and then another? What must begin so that the figure of the Ancestor may finally be laid to rest?
Under this different conception, the figure of the Ancestor in relation to black struggle is a figure of admirable ambivalence when taken seriously as an analytical point of departure for theory. For what the figure of the Ancestor illuminates for black theory is: First, that the Maxim of Life does not apply to Black life. In other words, there is no way to both exalt Life and exalt Blackness at the same time without rendering the figure of the Ancestor unthought. Black thought therefore cannot think on Life and think of the Ancestor and the history of struggle therein without thinking this Life in conjunction with “the dialectic of death.”[xii] Black sentience as Problem is a “death-bound subjectivity”[xiii] or rather, a “death-bound sentience” in exact contradistinction to the Human’s Maxim of Life. For what is the Glory and Splendor of the Ancestor, but a Death that in the absence of Life threatens to antagonize the entire structure of the Human, Man and the reigning anti-Black episteme of World? Second, that the future of Liberation is not guaranteed “in my lifetime” or the next one or the next one or the next one. In fact, the Figure of the Ancestor hauntingly presents an image of infinite struggle, of infinite anti-blackness, of the infinite topological transformation of the anti-Black paradigm from one paradigmatic scene of subjection to another. And yet, with all this, the Afropessimist still provides a sort of negative hope in answering this question of Endings. Frank Wilderson writes, “And then, move into a conversation about what is to be done, realizing that our language and our concepts (post-colonial, Marxist discourse) are so much a part of other peoples’ problems, problems that can be solved, that we’ll really never get to the thing that solves our problem — because it’s already there in Fanon: the end of the world.”[xiv] Frank Wilderson asserts here that it is nothing short of the “End of the World” that will grant black people gratuitous freedom. It is the End of the World that equals black utopia, black salvation, black liberation. Black Liberation therefore must mean not the re-description of the Modernity, but its full and total abolition, its complete and utter denouncement as the ground for opening a World whose sense is conceptually non-sensical insofar as the current conceptual economies ubiquitous arrangement of power has rendered a sense of its own Being through thinking/concepting/actualizing the Black as non-Being. For at the heart of the metaphysical violence in Western thought is the logic of preference for Being over Non-Being. This preference not only is followed by a positioning of the Black as the anti-thesis to Being, the bottommost Being of the Great Chain of Being, but it also co-constructs a doxa that makes it epistemically inconceivable to think Blackness as anything at all. It is this sense, that one could read mathematical ontology in relation to Blackness as a “problem for Thought,” or rather, as a “problem for the Idea.” KATHERINE MCKITTRICK. For example, the Infinitesimal as Idea enters into the axioms of mathematics as a Problem that gets conceptualized as a limit or as a necessary fiction in order to sustain the coherence of the axioms of mathematics just as Black non-being as an Idea enters into the axioms of Man as a problem that gets read as either the limits of Humanness or quite simply as a racial fiction to which we are forced to adhere to.
Blackness is then rendered as either “the ostensible missing link between rational humans and irrational animals,”[xv] or, similar to the Idea of the infinitesimal in the words of Gottfried Leibniz, as an “imaginary expression.”[xvi] But if Leibniz is correct in stating of the infinitesimal that “there are certain falsehoods which are useful for finding the truth,”[xvii] I would argue that Blackness as an Idea, as an “imaginary expression” of the limits of Hummaness, as a material-fiction within representation and re-presentation, serves to help us re-consider a certain Truth about Sonia Sanchez’s poetic imposition that, “The most important question of the 21st Century is: What does it mean to be Human?”[xviii]
In thinking Blackness together with the mathematical, one does not seek simply to play with concepts, to rejoice in the abstraction of theory, to make Thought-Experiment of the figure of the Ancestor, of the dead and dying Black body; on the contrary, if one takes seriously Ronald Judy’s remarks in his essay, Kant and The Negro, that “the black victim is not a perception but rather a conception,” and “the danger is in confusing the one for the other,”[xix] as well as Gilles Deleuze remarks that “Kant never ceased to remind us that Ideas are essentially ‘problematic’. Conversely, problems are Ideas,”[xx] then the history of the mathematician’s philosophical approach to the theory of problems – their designation, description, and deviance – proves important for the consideration of Black being-as-Problem. Not because Kant and/or the European mathematician’s conception of the World are True of some deeper reality function of the relationship between Ideas/Problems, but rather because, as Denise Ferriera Da Silva puts it, “[T]hese founding statements are the components of the two symbolic regions of modern representation: (a) the stage of exteriority, where reason plays its sovereign role, that of universal nomos, as the regulative (constraining) force that governs the things of the world that are subjected to outer determination, that is, affectable things, and (b) the stage of interiority, where universal reason plays its sovereign role as universal poesis, the productive (representing) power that founds the tools housed in the mind of man.”[xxi]
The conceptual economy of the now is still formulated in accordance to the “universal regulative or productive force” of the mind of Man, and “[t]he problem however, is that this culture …. continues to see itself as not being a culture at all, doing so by repressing the ‘fugitive truth’ that it is ‘but one of the forms that life has locally taken’ [Geertz, 1983: 16].”[xxii] It is in this sense, or rather, it is through knowing both the fact of Blackness as an Idea which marks the limits of the axiomatic thrust of Man, namely the universal play of reason, the Transcendental I, that one comes to know anti-Blackness as a problem of Ideas associated with Blackness in the axiomatic circulation of the conceptual economy of Modernity. This reversal of Frantz Fanon’s distinction of the Negro as being “not a slave to the ‘ideas’ others have of me, but to my appearances,”[xxiii] is not done to undermine the historical racial-schema as structuring a fundamentally visual/optical form of perceptual assault around the Black but rather it is due to the inextricability of the epistemic ecology that consolidates the myth of the Negro as fixed in its “’nigger” rung of being human.”[xxiv] The aesthesis of appearance, representation, and re-presentation that the Black is a slave to, is an aesthesis which is underwritten, by a grammar of representation, or better, a syntax of suffering which renders the Black illegible. Zakkiyah Jackson, puts it as follows:
The regulating terms of the dominant grammar of representation (re)produce black(ened) mater as always and already trapped within immanence, burdening black (maternal) female figures in particular with functioning as a signifier that points to what Sylvia Wynter (1990) terms ‘demonic ground’ or what is foreclosed from representability: the nonrepresentable beyond dividing what is sensible from what is nullified and precluded from representability. Thereby, the modern grammar of representation imposes the inhumanity it presumes[xxv].
These axiomatic circulations of representation, the unspoken grammar behind what it means to see and be able to speak “Look! A Negro,” structurally positions the Black as “the negation of the generic ‘normal humanness.”[xxvi] Or rather, from within the set of Humanity/Humanism, under the axiomatics of Man’s infinite multiplicity, the Black functions as the limit ordinal which Alain Badiou, French philosopher and set theoretician mentions, “is essentially different from that of a successor ordinal.”[xxvii] Badiou describes the limit ordinal to be “inaccessible via the operation of succession.”[xxviii] The operation of succession is important because each successor operation – understood as the basis through which something can present itself as different yet remain categorically the same from with a set – is defined by a rule of passage that sets it either within the set or outside the set. The limit ordinal comes to define the absolute boundary within the rule of passage. Thus, if the operation of succession functions according to the recognition of “still one more,” the limit ordinal functions as the “second existential seal,”[xxix] by closing the additive value of the multiple within the borders of its alterity. Thus, if mathematics is ontology and “[o]ntology—once it is finally admitted as leaving existence by the wayside—does not permit us to understand the being of the black man [and woman],”[xxx] then one should think of Blackness and Non-Blackness when Badiou writes:
The Other is, on the one hand, in the position of place for the other-sames; it is the domain of both the rule’s exercise and its impotence. On the other hand, it is what none of these others are, what the rule does not allow to traverse; it is therefore the multiple subtracted from the rule, and it is also what, if reached by the rule, would interrupt its exercise. It is clearly in the position of limit for the rule[xxxi].
In Modernity, under the axioms of Man, the ontological schema of the natural infinity that is the Euro-centric model of being Human, the point of Being, or the name of the void through which the successor ordinals of Man emerge is the Ratiocentric/Biocentric Man as described by Sylvia Wynter and the limit of the rule of being Human in accordance to the axioms of Man is the Black. Wynter describes three major events that marked a paradigmatic or evental rupture in Western historiography thus resulting in the birth of Ratio-centric Man. These events were the voyages of the Portuguese and Christopher Columbus (1492), the creation of the Modern State, and the Copernican Revolution. For Wynter, these events opened the possibility for new ways of knowing the World itself through inaugurating a rupture in the epistemology of the theocentric framework that said: 1) That the Oceans were not navigable; 2) the King had Divine Right to Govern; 3) the Earth stood perfectly still. This schematic conception has crucial thematic implications when one understands Wynter’s conversation on the transformation of this episteme of Truth as not only a re-description of the terms of the Spiritual Man, but additionally a revolutionary severaging of the Human from the Animal. Wynter’s work illustrates how these ruptures allowed for the rise of European Rationalism/Enlightenment which fostered the Western shift away from an overrepresentation of Man as Theocentric to an overrepresentation of Man as Ratiocentric. However, the West’s inability to see its own rationalism as a form of ethno-knowledge codified a new onto-epistemology that denied the existence, or the ontology of the Black due to what was perceived as their inability to reproduce Western forms of ethno-rationalism and their existence on regions of Earth without Western conceptions of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom.
Indeed, it was Man, the Rational Man in its genre-specific European construction, that socially instituted as “natural” the Negro the irrational body void of Being par-excellence, or as systematically placed at the bottommost regions of the new onto-epistemic hierarchy of Being[xxxii]. Therefore, the Black became the signification of “the qualitative discontinuity in the homogeneous universe of the ontological substructure of natural multiples,”[xxxiii] from within the set of Humanity. It is this ontological schema of natural multiples, or more simply, the metaphysics produced by Man and the now multicultural milieu of Man’s historically situated naturalism that provides the legitimating apparatus for the gratuitous exploitation of the Black body. The situation as such is such that, “The wager of infinity turns on this discontinuity,” for “a limit ordinal is the place of the Other for the succession of same-others which belong to it.”[xxxiv] Hence, the possibility of an infinite relation to anti-Black violence is imbricated in the actuality of the figure of Human and its successors. Alain Badiou writes:
In the limit ordinal, the place of alterity (all the terms of the sequence belong to it) and the point of the Other (its name, a, designates an ordinal situated beyond all those which figure in the sequence) are fused together. This is why it is quite correct to name it a limit: that which gives a series both its principle of being, the one-cohesion of the multiple that it is, and its ‘ultimate’ term, the one-multiple towards which the series tends without ever reaching nor even approaching it. This fusion, at the limit, between the place of the Other and its one, referred to an initial point of being (here, ∅, the void) and a rule of passage (here, succession) is, literally, the general concept of infinity[xxxv].
Thus, what we are after here in our abstraction, of the Problem of Negro and the problem of the Problem, is “the founding of [our] mundane inhabitation as a problem to the problematization of [our] own itinerary of existence,” in order to potentially reach “the elaboration of a fundamental questioning of the possible character and order of social and historical being in general.”[xxxvi] Black being is the corporeal embodiment of the negation of Man’s consistent reconfiguration, and the ontological embodiment of the Human’s Idea/Problem parallax – being re-invented over and over again as Problem. Yet, it is through affirming this structural positionality as Negro, as Problem, as Nothingness that a non-standard analysis of the Human becomes possible. The Black is no-Thing, no-Thing non-representable, no-Thing visible yet invisible that, from within the set schematic that continues to structure the apparatus of Being/Knowing/Truth/Freedom, has been made into Nothing due to its positionality as “the position of absolute dereliction.”[xxxvii] In this way, Blackness, like the infinite and the infinitesimal, encounters metaphysical violence as an attempt to repress the subversive uncountability of an entity which unveils the nature and madness of ontological decision. A decision which once thought can be unthought in order to rupture “the presentative homogeneity of natural being.”[xxxviii]
In this invention as Nothingness, the Black reveals that this “discontinuity which, founding two distinct species, requires legislation upon their [Black] existence.”[xxxix] Furthermore, Blackness reveals that, under the condition of legislation – the rule and law of Man – an unending, infinite relation to violence categorizes the Black as limit. Thus, as Sylvia Wynter so poignantly pointed out, “We cannot as a population group of African descent, wholly or partly, expect any other result but our continued degradation and global disempowerment, within the terms of our present conception of the human, Man, and the order of knowledge by means of which this conception is elaborated. As the Other to this conception of the human, the cultural messages of the order of knowledge which elaborates this conception must by necessity be hostile not only to our realization, but to our survival as a population group. It is it or us.”[xl] These contradictions in the axioms of Man makes Blackness function as an eternal paradox in the set of schemata that continues to render Black being as Problem. Therefore it is not enough to transform Negative representations into Positive re-presentations in order that the World may be undone; it is instead through destroying the entire antagonism, or rather “the problematic or dialectical Idea”[xli] of Blackness and The Human itself that the World begins anew. Or rather, it is through returning to the void that was decided to be named as Man, where the count-of-One began within the set of Humanity, that one de-axiomatizes the existence of the paradigm of anti-Blackness. There is no solution for Anti-Blackness within the axioms of Man since “every solution presupposes a problem – in other words, the constitution of a unitary and systematic field which orientates and subsumes the researches or investigation in such a manner that the answers, in turn, form precisely cases of solution.”[xlii] Frantz Fanon, writing on the Human Sciences notes, “Our only hope of getting out of the situation is to pose the problem correctly, for all these findings and all this research have a single aim: to get man to admit he is nothing, absolutely nothing and get him to eradicate this narcissism whereby he thinks he is different from the other ‘animals.”[xliii] Nevertheless, unlike Fanon and Sylvia Wynter, I have no investment in grasping “narcissism with both hands” as a means to ensure the future of the a New Humanism. If the goal of the Human Sciences is “to get man to admit he is nothing” then it is perhaps better to understand these Sciences as Anti-Human Sciences and Anti-Humanist Black study as the Anti-Human Praxis that seeks to “get man to admit that he is nothing, absolutely nothing” which may perhaps, if combined with the immanent plane of black resistance, help give birth to a new everything, an absolutely new, everything.
[i] Da Silva defines the “Transcendental I,” in Towards a Global Idea of Race as “Man, the subject, the ontological figure consolidated in post-Enlightenment European Thought.” Denise Ferreira Da Silva, Toward a Global Idea of Race, vol. 27 (U of Minnesota Press, 2007), xvi.
[ii] Saidiya Hartman, Lose Your Mother: A Journey along the Atlantic Slave Route (Macmillan, 2008), 6.
[iii] Sylvia Wynter, “The Ceremony Must Be Found: After Humanism,” Boundary 2, 1984, 37.
[vi] Jean-Luc Nancy, “The Sense of the World, Trans,” Jeffrey S. Librett (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997) 4 (1997): 29.
[vii] Fred Moten, “The Case of Blackness,” Criticism 50, no. 2 (2008): 177–218.
[viii] Lewis R Gordon et al., “Afro Pessimism,” Contemporary Political Theory 17, no. 1 (2018): 5.
[ix] Gordon et al., 4.
[x] Dionne Brand, A Map to the Door of No Return: Notes to Belonging (Vintage Canada, 2012).
[xii] Abdul R JanMohamed, The Death-Bound-Subject: Richard Wright’s Archaeology of Death (Duke University Press, 2005), 17.
[xiii] JanMohamed, 50.
[xiv] Frank B Wilderson, ““We’re Trying to Destroy the World” Anti-Blackness & Police Violence After Ferguson,” Ill Will Editions, 2014, 18.
[xv] Wynter, “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/ Power/ Truth/ Freedom,” 266.
[xvi] Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and Philip P Wiener, “Leibniz Selections,” 1951, 73.
[xvii] Leibniz and Wiener, 73.
[xix] Ronald Judy, “Kant and the Negro,” Surfaces 1, no. 8 (1991): 8.
[xx] Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition (Columbia University Press, 1994), 168.
[xxi] Da Silva, Toward a Global Idea of Race, 27:31.
[xxii] Sylvia Wynter, “Towards the Sociogenic Principle: Fanon, Identity, the Puzzle of Conscious Experience, and What It Is like to Be ‘Black,’” National Identities and Sociopolitical Changes in Latin America, 2001, 2.
[xxiii] Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks (Grove press, 2008), 95.
[xxiv] Wynter, “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/ Power/ Truth/ Freedom,” 262.
[xxv] Zakiyyah Jackson, “Sense of Things,” Catalyst: Feminism, Theory, Technoscience 2, no. 2 (2016): 10.
[xxvi] Wynter, “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/ Power/ Truth/ Freedom,” 266.
[xxvii] Alain Badiou, Being and Event (A&C Black, 2007), 154.
[xxviii] Badiou, 514.
[xxix] Badiou, 146.
[xxx] Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, 90.
[xxxi] Badiou, Being and Event, 147.
[xxxii] All of this analysis of Wynter’s work stems from: Wynter, “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/ Power/ Truth/ Freedom.”
[xxxiii] Badiou, Being and Event, 154.
[xxxiv] Badiou, 154.
[xxxv] Badiou, 156.
[xxxvii] Frank B Wilderson III, Dylan Rodriguez, and Dhoruba Bin Waha, Warfare in the American Homeland: Policing and Prison in a Penal Democracy (Duke University Press, 2007), 23.
[xxxviii] Badiou, Being and Event, 151.
[xxxix] Badiou, 151.
[xl] Sylvia Wynter, “A Black Studies Manifesto,” in Forum NHI, vol. 1, 1994, 10.
[xli] Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, 181.
[xlii] Deleuze, 168.
[xliii] Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, 6.