Notes for Classroom Presentation: Black Visual
“Exhaustion is the contemporary crisis of black studies.”
Calvin Warren names exhaustion as the contemporary crisis of Black studies as the field maneuvers more and more towards a desire for an afterword to Slavery. It is this move to turn slavery into a “thing of the past” that animates Warren’s decision to write Black Time. Warren writes, “Our critical climate is one of impatience, as if we’ve somehow exceeded a statute of limitations for discussing slavery.” (BT, 54) It is this fantasy of a law of excess around attending to the grammars of Black suffering that prefigures the discourse around contemporary slavery such that any and every attempt to allude to Slavery requires that the Black “get over” its “past.” Warren again writes, “The phrase ‘getting over’ is yet another index of this intensifying exhaustion – one that figuratively subordinates the subject of the slave past, holding out the dubious promise that if we can somehow get over this incorrigible subject, this conceptual-historical surplus, then we might achieve something like wellness, success, possessive individualism, power, agency, and so on.” (BT, 54) Warren philosophically diagnoses the issue as a problem of temporality and objectivity. In the first instance, we find this insistence that the Black “go beyond” Slavery to be an insistence located within a theory of Time which might suggest a bracketing of events. There is A) the Time Before Slavery, B) The Time of Slavery and C) The Time of Emancipation and Freedom. This neatly crafted, cut and constructed delineation of the event of anti-Black slavery is not only a temporality premised on an epistemic closure, i.e. the ends of Slavery – but of metaphysical domination – the necessity of accepting what this epistemic closure ontologically describes and prescribes. This is why Warren writes that “the critical compulsion to get over slavery is inextricable from the constitutive violence of the metaphysical enterprise. The aim of metaphysics is domination. Its function is to capture an event-horizon – something that exceeds metaphysical time – and then transform it into a historical object and dominate it.” (BT, 56) In other words, the move to make the grandeur of being into a scientific plaything is a will to power which not only overdetermines the meanings we are able to give to temporality, but codifies meaning and (most importantly for Warren’s work) meaninglessness itself into temporal schematic. It is in this case that the problematic of temporality coalesces with the issue of objectivity. A veneer of rationality comes to stylize this conceptual-historical schematic which requires that one accept its temporal logic as an a priori concession to objectivity in regards to the matter of Blackness and the meaning of Slavery. This is to say that, even in Black Studies, the obsession with everything “post” has to do with the idea that Slavery thought outside of this temporality is out-of-step with objective-events. Warren attempts to throw this entire assumptive logic into crisis when he states that, “slavery is not reducible to an object-event of metaphysics; moreover, it comprises an event-horizon that structures western thought itself.” (BT, 56) Therefore, Warren argues that only the end of metaphysics and the epistemology of Slavery can put a stop to the violent terms and conditions of black time. Locating his understanding of metaphysics in the work of the Italian Marxist Nihilist philosopher Gianni Vattimo, who locates their understanding of metaphysics in the work of the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, Warren quotes Vattimo’s Nihilism and Emancipation which states, “Pain is the very essence of metaphysics… there is no metaphysics except the metaphysics of pain.” (BT, 56)
What is metaphysics then? And why does Warren rely on Heidegger and Heideggerians like Vattimo, Badiou and to a certain extent Zizek in order to define his understanding of metaphysics? To what end does this metaphysics introduce and maintain itself through violence? The answer lies in Warren’s first book Ontological Terror wherein he addresses the question directly. In Ontological Terror he introduces a similar argument regarding the pain and suffering wrought through metaphysics and the necessity for its destruction as found in and through the work of Heidegger. In the book, Warren is pressed, “You know Heidegger was sympathetic to Nazism, don’t you?” to which he replied, “Even more reason for black studies to read and engage him!” (OT, 8) While not quite the most convincing response, Warren’s point is two-fold: 1) Heidegger’s philosophical significance to twentieth-century thought (Nazi and/or Otherwise) has become such a critical component to how the West and Others have come to think and know themselves/ourselves that an engagement and interrogation of Heidegger’s work is necessary for Black Studies to think-with because regardless of how we think, feel and/or consider we have all become implicated in Heideggerian thought. 2) Heidegger’s philosophical drive for a Destruktion of metaphysics – a task to which most of his philosophical oeuvre is aimed – is precisely the kind of Destruktion needed to emancipate the Black from the violence of which Heidegger only gently approaches since he never thinks Blackness. Whereas the first account, in my opinion, can be considered a weak argument for Heidegger in Black Studies, one which implies the inescapability of Heideggerian thought as if Heidegger’s question of Being is some inscrutable door through which we all must travel. The second account resonates more in that it takes Heidegger’s aim of Destruktion and argues that this aims has radical implications when anchored into a study of Blackness and being. For the violence of Being to Blackness is the making of Blackness into Non-Being. Thus, like in Ontological Terror, Warren in Black Times relies on Heidegger’s work – when he is working “against” Heidegger – to argue that:
“the Negro is the missing element in Heidegger’s thinking (as well as in that of those postmetaphysicians indebted to Heidegger, such as Jean Luc Nancy, Giorgio Agamben, Alain Badiou, and Gianni Vattimo). If, as we learn in Being and Time, Dasein uses tools to experience its thrownness in the world (establishing its facticity) and to develop its unique project oriented toward the future (projectionality), the Negro – as commodity, object, slave, putative backdrop, prisoner, refugee, and corpse – is the quintessential tool Dasein uses. The use of the Negro metaphysically and ontologically, as a tool, is what black thinking is tasked with pursuing.” (OT, 8)
Yet, the question remains: What is metaphysics? Is the essence of metaphysics – which is pain – constitutive of the meaning of metaphysics itself? While still urging its destruction, Warren writes in a footnote that his notion of metaphysics is once again indebted to Heidegger’s Introduction to Metaphysics as recourse to his conception of what must be antagonized and destroyed. Yet, even Heidegger’s famous “What is Metaphysics?” essay elides a direct answer to the question stating instead that, “The question, ‘What is Metaphysics?’ remains a question. For those who persevere with this question the following postscript is more of a foreword. The question, ‘What is Metaphysics?’ ask a question that goes beyond metaphysics.” (Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre, 257). Here, Heidegger circumvents an answer to the question preferring instead to emphasize the ongoing significance of asking it. Therefore, before we suspend this question as being beyond the scope of the current exegesis, I want to return to another text by Heidegger which approaches the question. In a lecture course of early Heideggerian thought published later as Ontology – The Hermeneutics of Facticity, Heidegger provides a description of Ontology which might help us understand Warren’s theorization of antagonism and destruction. Heidegger states:
The terms ‘ontology’ and ‘ontological’ will be used only in the above mentioned empty sense of nonbinding indications. They refer to a questioning and defining which is directed to being as such. Which sort of being (Sein) is to be questioned after and defined and how this is to be done remain utterly indefinite. In preserving a memory of the Greek word ôv [being], ‘ontology’ at the same time means the epigonic treatment of traditional questions about being which proliferates on the soil of classical Greek philosophy. Though traditional ontology claims to deal with general definitions of being, it actually has a definite region of being before its eyes. In its modern usage, the word ‘ontology’ means as much as ‘theory of objects’ and indeed one which is in the first place formal. In this respects, it coincides with ancient ontology (“metaphysics”). (Ontology, 1).
In other words, metaphysics is not only the question that ontology quest after but it is additionally a preservation of a certain trace or memory. Metaphysics coincides with ancient ontology stemming as far back as classical Greek philosophy itself. Thus metaphysics and ontology owes both its semantic coherence and its conceptual-historical praxis as an index to a Greek historiographical lineage. Therefore, “though traditional ontology claims to deal with general definitions of being, it actually has a definite region of being before its eyes.” It is against this general definition of being, which while deriving from a “definite region of being” comes to be, the universal definition of Being itself, as a result of the metaphysical violence of imposition. Therefore, Warren’s antagonism to both this definition of Being and Ontology as well as the universalization of classical Greek philosophy’s regional metaphysics, is an extension of Frantz Fanon’s emphatic claim in Black Skin, White Mask that, “From one day to the next, the Blacks have had to deal with two systems of reference. Their metaphysics, or less pretentiously their customs and the agencies to which they refer, were abolished because they were in contradiction with a new civilization that imposed its own.” (BSWM, 90)
At this critical juncture, then, we can return to the question of objectivity. Under these conditions, objectivity is Thought which aligns with both Calvin Warren and Frantz Fanon’s analysis of the violence of metaphysics and ontological imposition. Objectivity is Thought which can turn an event-horizon into an object-event. Objectivity is Thought which can turn a sequence of occasions into a monolith of facticity. If, as Warren describes, “Metaphysics seeks to dominate and to transform the event-horizon into an object event,” and, “The event-horizon is that which exceeds metaphysical epistemes and incorrigibly escapes the clutches of metaphysics, even as metaphysics attempts to capture it through objectification,” then, what Warren is arguing in Black Time about the presumed historiographic objectivity of the ‘Ends of Slavery’ is that such an account is authored as a capitulation the violence of Western metaphysics and the mystifying objectivity of its ontological anti-Blackness. This is to say that Warren sees in the objectivity of the Historian’s assumption that “slavery has ended,” a metaphysical enterprise of pain and brutality which transforms an ongoing event-horizon (an occasion in excess of metaphysics) into an object-event (the placement of the event-horizon into an onto-epistemic restriction wherein to know Slavery is to know that it is over). Warren again puts it bluntly:
Our conceptions of American slavery have overwhelmingly been historiographical, and historiography traffics in the metaphysical violence of temporality that engenders it. The event-horizon that structures modern thought and meaning is reduced to a mere scientific object with a beginning (supposedly 1619) and an end (supposedly 1865). This violence determines the way in which we talk about slavery; it turns slavery into something we can get over, control, calculate, and dominate. (BT, 59)
Finally, we can approach this notion of Black time. The violent objectification of temporality positions the Black as temporally homeless. Sutured to a paradigm of disavowed enslavement, the Black suffers metaphysics as a “being outside the horizon of time that defines the human.” (BT, 61) If the Human is a metaphysical construct of the West, then Warren’s argument is that Black time is a temporality of disorientation. The Black does not possess time, but is rather possessed by time – a time without duration. In this existential quest to simply exist, the Black finds that existential temporality or ‘The Time of Man’ is a time of its own domination and enslavement without an end in sight.
Black time is this foreclosure of the self, and we refer to this foreclosure as dispossession. The slave is dispossessed from the sell onto the extent that the slave master can seize his or her time and epidermalize temporality (that is, black time and the time of man). Slavery is the vicious enterprise of situating a being outside the time of man and in the abyss of black time. (BT, 62)
This conception throws the critical categories of contemporary critical theory and analysis into crisis. What starts as exhaustion ends at an incredulity towards ontological discontinuity. The burden, for once, falls on the historian, the philosopher, the sociologist and the humanist who has accepted the motion of historiography as a motion of linear progress up from slavery. Is it enough to say, “Slavery is finished,” to assure its finitude? And what happens once we accept that we have been given a paradigm of relation that ensures the continuation of slavery through its endless disavowal? “Metaphysical time fails to account for the grief of slavery.” (BT, 65) Who is slavery over for? Who gets to declare its finitude such that all must accept its declaration?
In conclusion, the interminable grief of slavery coexist and coincides with a metaphysical violence of objectifying the event-horizon of slavery into a historical object-event. Not only does anti-Black violence continue, not only does slavery continue, but they both continue under a regime of truth and being which always already functions to denounce the ongoing machinations of Black destruction. Rather than ask, “When will the Black get over slavery?” or, “How can we get over slavery?” Warren urges us to return to this nonchalantly posed “over.” As getting “over” slavery becomes synonymous with a forthcoming Black wellness, the assumptive logics of such a theorization of Black suffering eschews the structure of domination for a “compulsion to dominate time, to turn it into an object that can be thoroughly understood, analyzed, and eventually discarded when no longer needed.” (BT, 66) Under this logic, the Black will be well when they submit to the phantasmagoric temporality of Man and adjust themselves accordingly to the perfection of slavery. Positioned on the outsides of Time, in the confines of an impossible desire to be free from their sickness of being-death, the Black accepts the metaphysical logic of Wellness as a logic of pain recycled. Accept your enslavement without speaking to your enslavement; deny your enslavement or become objectively understood as Mad. For here, under the coordinates and conditions of Western metaphysics, only the Black Mad remain in the throes of a protest psychosis which insist there is no “over” to get over.