Collapse Of The Paradigm

Collapse of the paradigm.

Classroom Presentation: Afropessimism and the Status of the Subject

Thursday, January 14th 2021

Orlando Patterson’s analysis of slavery in Slavery and Social Death is an explosion of the notion of slavery from its prevailing definitions in the general academic parlance. Patterson’s constituent elements of slavery argue against a consensus that understands slavery through an overdetermined coupling of slavery to labor and work. On the contrary, Patterson states that, “There is nothing in the nature of slavery which requires that the slave be a worker. Work qua worker has no intrinsic relation to slave qua slave. This does not mean that the slave cannot be used as a worker. Indeed, his slaveness, especially his natal alienation, made possible his effective exploitation as laborer in conditions where no other kind of laborer would do.” (99) As a foundational text to the assumptive logics of Afropessimism, Patterson’s explosion of the concept of slavery away from the provincial domain of labor assist one in understanding the ways in which slavery might be thought of not simply as an experience of subjugated persons within plantation regimes of a long-gone antebellum past, but as a paradigmatic positioning within our current anti-Black World order.

Patterson’s constituent elements of slavery consist of: gratuitous violence, natal alienation and general dishonor. Gratuitous violence is Patterson’s first element and marks a crucial distinction between the worker and the slave. He states, “The worker who is fired remains a worker, to be hired elsewhere. The slave who was freed was no longer a slave. Thus it was necessary to continually repeat the original, violent act of transforming the free man into slave.” (3) This gratuitous violence was a modality of force without limit, a death-driven repetition which stemmed from the symbolic authority given to the Master. Access to this monopolization of violence is derived from control over the symbolic instruments of authorization. For, as Patterson notes, “Slavery is a highly symbolized domain of Human experience,” (38) in which case it therefore requires a study of the subject of semiotics as a means to study its subject. Patterson himself notes this directly before the aforementioned quote stating, “The full mechanics of this process of symbol appropriation is beyond the scope of the present work; what I shall do is examine the nature of symbolic control in the case of the master-slave relationships.” (37) Afropessimism, therefore, despite Patterson’s own rejections and deflections, could be read as theory that expands the scope of Patterson’s work to interrogate precisely the relationship between “the master-slave relationship” and the “full mechanics of this process of symbolic appropriation” as it relates to the Black as the Slave of our current anti-Black paradigm. That language and narrative features so prominently as categories of crisis in Afropessimist discourse and analysis can therefore be understood as an antagonistic critique of the symbolic anthropology of the Human/Master. Afropessimism takes up Patterson’s explosion of the concept of slavery – especially its emphasis on force and violence as primary elements of coherence – and applies it to Modern anti-Black paradigm. For if “[w]ithin a given cultural domain… a dominant symbol – a major mythic theme, a key ritual act – stands out as pivotal,” and “[b]y its emergence it makes possible an internal interpretation of the symbolic processes on both the intellectual and social level,” (37) then Afropessimism, and those of us thinking-with and through Afropessimism, understand this ritual act, this mythic theme, in accordance to the current organizing principle of our paradigm to be, the systematic reification and crystallization of the syntagmatic connections of gratuitous violence, Blackness, and Slavery. Put differently, Afropessimism understands the ritual murder of Blackness to be constitutive not only of the sense behind the logic of Slavery in the collective unconscious of the World, but equally understands the logic of that World to have no sense without this ritual murder. Hence, the maxim: No slave, No World.

Natal alienation defines the slave as a genealogical isolate. It is the sin qua non of its social death. Patterson states, “Alienated from all ‘rights’ or claims of birth, he ceased to belong in his own right to any legitimate order. All slaves experienced, at the very least, a secular excommunication,” (5). This excommunication constituted the slave as the pariah of the community. Alienated from natality, claims to heredity, and social life, the slave was “differed from other human beings in that they were not allowed freely to integrate the experience of their ancestors into their lives, to inform their understanding of social reality with the inherited meanings of their natural forebears, or to anchor the living present in any conscious community of memory.” (5) Saidiya Hartman explores the sexuating violence of natal alienation in her seminal text Scenes of Subjection explicitly through the vexed contradictions of sexual terror, anti-Black slavery and pleasure in nineteeth-century America. Her work is vexed, due to the vacuum in the historical archives concerning the Slave, as well as the asymmetrical distributions in narrative capacity, power and authority through which the historical record brings the absented presence of the Slave into view. Hartman attempts to write against the grain of the authorial power of the archive in order to illustrate how one might provide another reading of the formations of terror and enjoyment that constitute the structural positioning of the Slave. Reading across numerous court cases, Hartman illustrates the way in which the sexual violence done to and upon the Slave, while not only being gratuitous, also served to communicate their general isolation and excommunication from the meaning and measure of Humanity as embodied in the Law. Citing Confederate Army Officer, Lawyer, and slave-owner, Thomas Cobbs’ Inquiry into the Law of Negro Slavery, Hartman states that “It is difficult to acknowledge this savage quantification of life and person as a recognition of black humanity, for as argued earlier, this restricted stipulation of humanity intensified the pained existence of the enslaved. This scale of subjective value was a complement rather than a corrective to the decriminalization of white violence that was the foundation of slave law.” (95) Introduced into Humanity by slave law, sexual violence against the Slave was considered by Cobbs to be an “offense not affecting the existence of the slave.” (95) Thus, “the ravished body, unlike a broken arm or leg, did not bestow any increment of subjectivity because it did not decrease productivity or diminish value – on the contrary, it might actually increase the captive’s magnitude of value – nor did it, apparently, offend the principles of Christian enlightenment.” (96) This contrary ‘increase’ of the captive’s value is directly connected to the captive’s natal alienation. That sexual violence was not only violent and repetitive under the antebellum slave regime is only part and parcel of the dark and depressing point, for what is equally notable is that this violence also produced a parasitic increase in the positive value of the Master while simultaneously reproducing the negative value of the Slave by further suturing the relationship between their total powerlessness and their social death. Hartman goes on to state that in the case of the Black this relation of sexual violence and natal alienation engender racialization with the logics of sexual violation. As such, just as Blackness qua Slavery, seen through a prism of naked violence throws into crisis the universal consensus of the Slave as Worker, Blackness as qua Slavery, seen through a prism of natal alienation throws into crisis the presupposition of universal gender. For “[w]hat becomes clear is the contingency of woman as a category. While in the context of slave law, woman is figured, in this instance, in relation to the negation of injury, in the context of slave relations, men are also subject to forms of sexual violation, and notwithstanding, the enslaved fashion themselves as gendered subjects in accordance with their own norms of masculinity and femininity. Therefore,” Hartman states, “I do not claim or think it is possible to establish the constancy of woman across these varied territories.”  (101)

Lastly, general dishonor, articulates the way that the enslaved “were always persons who had been dishonored in a generalized way,” (Patterson, 10). Patterson considers this to be the uniquely sociopsychogical aspect of the Master-Slave dynamic. Drawing on Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan to draw out the connections between honor and power, Patterson attempts to describe general dishonor as an outcome of a psychology of power imposed upon the entire society of the enslaved. It is key to note that while Wilderson and Patterson agree on this point, Patterson’s citational reliance on Thomas Hobbes as well as British symbolic anthropology to build the touchstones of cohesion for his arguments regarding honor, power, and the Human presupposes honor as recognition of one’s Humanity as always already a locus for obtaining of one’s power and freedom. Yet, the rhetorical force of proto-Afropessimist theorist like Frantz Fanon, Hortense Spillers, and Saidiya Hartman, lies in the argument against the anthropic universalism which the anthropologist rest their authority. For if Hartman’s critique of empathetic identification, as well as her analysis of the innocent amusements characteristic of the performances of Blackness required as entertainment and pleasure of and for the Master, assert anything at all it is that the general dishonor that constitutes the Slave-as-Black and the Black-as-Slave is one in which the category of the Human itself is antagonistic to the Black. Neither sentimental recognition nor insufferable pleasures can free the Black from this sociopsychological horror of general dishonor. Hartman puts it as follows: “This reading attempts to elucidate the means by which the wanton use of and the violence directed toward the black body come to be identified as its pleasure and dangers – that is, the expectations of slave property are ontologized as the innate capacities and inner feelings of the enslaved, and moreover, the ascription of excess and enjoyment to the African effaces the violence perpetrated against the enslaved.” (26) The metaphysical violence gets taken as the Slave’s pleasure and fixation; the Slave becomes coterminous with its subjection and hence, with the dishonor of its “trial by death” (Patterson, 100). It makes no difference whether or not the Slave is found in the coffle, on the auction bloc, in a prison, or at a university. For nowhere in Slavery and Social Death does Patterson sound more “Afropessimist” then when he insist that, “Further, it is not unreasonable to speculate that slaves did more than help in meeting material needs, they also satisfied a psychological need to dominate.” (88) This desire for domination is read in Hartman’s work through patient attention to detail in what she claims to be “an allegory for the present.” Agreement or disagreement with this claim (and its stakes can be no higher than a ‘collapse of the paradigm,’ i.e. the end of the world as we know it) would rely therefore not only on Patterson’s explosion of the concept of slavery, but also on our willingness or unwillingness to accept the logical consequences of Hartman’s argument which firmly roots the ontological violence of slavery into the context and confines of our anti-Black present. If this is true then, the disavowal of ‘Afropessimism’ as a depressing insistence and autoerotic fascination with the gothic elements of black suffering paradoxically becomes a reification of the critique. For in this disavowal what one find yet again is that “the wanton use of and the violence directed toward the black body come to be identified as its pleasure and dangers.” The point, namely, that any and every attempt to narrate the condition of the Slave presents the paradigm with a crisis of narrative from within its dominant symbolic authority. By asking for a grammar of suffering abstract enough to speak to the Black’s hieroglyphic suffering, Afropessimism calls into question Honor itself and with Honor, the ontological, ethical, and epistemological saliency of Human recognition. Therefore, if gratuitous violence ruptures the coherence of the Slave as Worker, and natal alienation ruptures the coherence of the Slave as Gendered subject, then general dishonor ruptures the coherence of the Slave as Human. This is not to say that the each constituent element only affects the Slave in direct relation to the categories of Work, Gender, and Ontology. Rather it is to say that the Slave is not the Master of her own destiny rather her destiny is Death, and the entire sociopsychological well-being of the World depends upon systematically reproducing this destiny as an end in itself. The annihilation of the total applicability of Work, Gender, and Humanism to the Slave is the consequence of the Slave’s ontological death, and not the other way around.

It is important to consider the ramifications of this conceptualization of slavery for in it lies both a demystification of slavery as a structural position and the possibility of locating the machinations of slavery in the present. It should therefore go without saying that Afropessimism’s usurpation and application of Patterson’s explosion of the concept of slavery has been taken as a bomb threat. The logic, mythos, and ethos of the World would dissipate if one were to bring to collective consciousness the extremities of terror and isolation fomented around the Black. The World would have to concede that this is not the afterlife of slavery, but as Orlando Patterson himself states, “History did not repeat itself; it merely lingered.” (76)


            One of the potential limitations of Afropessimism’s immanent critiques of Non-Black and Western theories of paradigmatic analysis is that it takes for granted that what Labor, Gender, and Humanity means in Marxism, Feminism, and Humanism are – due to their paradigmatic nature – the assumptive meanings of Labor, Gender, and Humanity itself. In a way, you could argue that Saidiya Hartman’s critique of gender requires an acceptance of ‘Gender’ as given from the dominant discourses of gender theory whether it is the performative theory of Judith Butler or the psychoanalytic feminism of Kaja Silverman.

  • Is there another way to conceptualize gender that might not render it incompatible with theorizing anti-Blackness? Or rather, is there a way to conceptualize anti-Blackness as ontological gendering violence on the basis of Hartman’s articulation of the violence of slavery being constituted by sexual violence and violation? What might thinking anti-Blackness through a prism of gendering ontologies of the Human do for our analysis of anti-Blackness?

One of the central questions for me regarding slavery and labor after Patterson and Afropessimism’s uncoupling of the assumption that slavery always implies “work” was: What does “work” and “labor” mean under these conditions? It would seem to me that only under an association of work with physical exertion does it makes sense to conclude that “not all slaves work.” For there is “immaterial labor” and “reproductive labor” and perhaps even “dream-work” which, when theorized broadly, could come to encompass and locate the Slave back within the fundamental machinations of political economy inextricably linked to the libidinal economy.

  • How do you feel about the argument that “not all slaves work?” What does “work” mean under these conditions? And can you imagine or consider any theoretical paradigm which might be helpful to think against or with this notion of the non-laboring Slave? How might a more robust notion of work help or hurt our analysis of the Slave’s structural positionality?

Lastly: What does it mean to be Human? How does it get defined? And what do you think should be done with it?

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