Monday, May 18, 2009

Are "Afro-pessimists" Really a Rejected Group & Just Another Theory "Movement"?

So, what's an "afro-pessimist" anyway? Another scholar inducted into another theory movement or wave? Could it be just some thinking or must it be an "ist" or "ism"? I hear echoes here of "post-structuralism," "post-modernism," etc. ( [l] Frank Wilderson, UC Irvine; [r] Saidiya Hartman, Columbia University)

This is a response to the post regarding what this blog might offer and discuss. I'm uncomfortable with positioning (or labeling of a "style" of thought) the "afro-pessimist" (or any scholar) as one who is intellectually rejected by the university because of her thinking. Most of the scholars who might be called "afro-pessimists" (I have yet to find a place where any scholars identified by others as "afro-pessimists" call themselves "afro-pessimists" or believers in "afro-pessimism") are doing quite well in the university, publishing, sharing and arguing with colleagues as folks usually do in the academy.

This is not the '60s where there needs to be a revolt because the "thoughts" of afro-pessimism are dis-allowed in the university. There are far more issues around race, sexuality, gender, and capital to go after in the university: the privatization of public space; the neoliberalization of departments. e.g., audits, separate department budgets for pencils, copying, and the rental of classroom space from the university in which departments reside.

Lastly, how can thoughts not be thought (taken from the quotation below in this blog's first post: "thoughts that cannot be thought.")? Which thoughts can't be thought? Whose thoughts can't be thought? I know that when my daughter mumbles under her breath, she is under the illusion that I can't hear her--that she is in her own private Idaho where she may curse me out into the abyss. She has inferred that she may not think her own thoughts about Mamí and Papí, but obviously she knows this not to be true because her mumbles of defiance speak for themselves . . . she mumbles away anyway calling me a "b-ch" in her own 8-year old language. Or, who knows, quite possibly she's doing so in our adult language.

All of this is to say that I hear here a need for some sort of "rights" movement: the right to think thoughts, for example. I hear here a need for positioning, location, a normative "home" within the university. And, this is just what ethnic studies departments didn't problematize when they initially made the "fight"--they succumbed to the fallacy that the university could provide a home--and it did, a home just like the university's--and they became, in many ways, like the university and its disciplines. Because of the times and because of the ways in which power works, perhaps they desired normativity (and the normative space of the university) more than they desired freedom--freedom also being a constructed notion. So what did they want? See Roderick Ferguson's new work on this, which is forthcoming in his new book The Affirmative Actions of Power.

Afro-pessimists have not been shorn off from the university. They are not a desperate group or cause to be argued for. In fact, I think people like Hartman, James, Spillers et al would want to be known as thinking people not people in need of permission to think and speak. Maybe they want to be known as people who are arguing against the terrain that claims theoretical spaces and names them without naming a historical violence. E.g., the way in which the US claimed British cultural studies and created departments and anthologies around it (see Stuart Hall's "Cultural Studies & Its Theoretical Legacies").

Do the so-called afro-pessimists desire to be a theory-group of their own or would they prefer challenging us all to think different kinds of thoughts and to consider seemingly twisted kinds of societal and cultural problematizations. I thought they were (and there's that label of "they" again, as if they were a group) reacting against traditional cultural theory? And PS, is it even for us to decide?


  1. I will have to have a look at the readings you mentioned by Stuart Hall and Roderick Ferguson. Maybe we should add it to the reading list our group covers? Now that this thing is up and going, I say we start inviting a few more people in.

  2. Afro Pessimism isnt a real group of people dedicated to one goal or set of intellectual protocols, as much as it designates a group of theorist who's work can be characterized as theorizing structual positionality. The theorist that have been identified by this representation span the feild from cultural studies to social science. Afro-Pessimism isnt some other "ism" or identifiable collection of particular people but more presicily its an agreement that Anti-black racism is amongst the central conditions of possibility of the modern world.

    Whereas this may seem like a bold assertion several theorist such as Achille Mbembe, go through rigous details to describe particular dynamics of power which still haunt the modern world.

    So called "Afro-pessemist" such as Frank Wilderson, identify the academy's recent turn towards postmodern hybridity as a turn away from structual positionality. According to some of the theorist Anti-black racism turns the paradigm of slavery into a continous Fanonian Mis-en-scene in which the gratuitous and ubiquitous nature of violence breaks in on questions of what it means to be a human in a global civil society.

    Against the recent turn to identity politix,multiculturalism, anti-capitalism and poststructualism, afro-pessimism argues what is identified by numerous interdisciplinary studies empirical reasearches and historical documents, mainly that the relations of anti-black slavery created,shaped, and continues to maintain a sailent economy of black death.

    Because of the very antagonistic nature of the history of this violence, all feilds of ideology including: gender studies critical theory,social science, political science, economics etc.; commit to a powerful labor of disavow. This disavowal of anti-blacksness seeks to ignore the now quotidian nature of black death, its real material and structual coordinates as well as the psychological reappearences and experences of the images of black death as they pervade serveral aspects of our daily experience.

    Gratuitous scenes such as the spectacle of Trayvon Martin, not only lend themselves to a particular model of death, they also reverberate through society and create preconscious investments which fortify and extend the life of civil society. Seemingly innoculous investments such as reading this message and typing a response, requires the prior antiblack depletion of minerals such as coltan from the Congo, used in the tantalum capacitors of several major electronics like cellphones computers etc.

    Whereas the historical anti-black primitive accumulation of material resources and labor is ineluctable, whats most startling is the persistent image of worthlessness conferred on Black death insofar as it demonstrates an all out assult on black life.

    Afro-pessimist in large part agree with these assumptions and dedicate their work to demystifing the dynamics of the relationship the blacks share to the modern world.