ReBIT19 – Pessimism as Interpretative Frame

April 28, 2019 John Drabinski

The second annual symposium under the rubric Re-Thinking the Black Intellectual Tradition was held on March 30th, 2019. We gathered under the theme “Pessimism as Interpretative Frame” and explored the meaning of pessimism for thinking about the histories and lives of Black people.

Part of the aim of the symposium was to break a little bit from the link between afro-pessimism as a contemporary movement and pessimism as an affect across the tradition and as part of our readerly practice. This is complex territory, both because the shadow of the contemporary movement is cast so widely over our theoretical vocabulary and because the tradition’s own development embeds so many other affects inside pessimism. I think we did important work here.

The day opened with Axelle Karera and M. Shadee Malaklou. Axelle explored how anti-blackness impacts our thinking through the meaning of eco-catastrophe and Shadee put questions of pessimism and blackness at the forefront of matters of pedagogy. How do we think about the future of the planet with racial history and racial justice as a foreground, background, and recurring question? What does teaching afropessimist theory mean for our identities as instructors, in front of our students and in front of the presentation of ideas? These questions and how each worked through them concretize questions of pessimism. Brilliant work.

This was followed by Calvin Warren and Melvin L. Rogers, a panel that split the question of pessimism in compelling ways. Calvin re-theorized pessimism through a creative encounter between Badiou’s set theory and formalization of philosophy and da Silva’s argument against formalism. Melvin explored the temporality of the discourses of pessimism and faith, locating the former in the present and rooted in the evidence of racial violence, locating the latter in evidence-to-come, the future. What emerged out of this pairing, as different as each presentation proved to be, was for me how the African-American tradition, presented here in terms of Delany and Douglass, mixes pessimism and hope in ways that makes any formal distinction near impossible – and raises the question, in my mind, of the meaning of even introducing such a distinction. And yet the oscillation between formalism and anti-formalism makes the question forever relevant: how does the explicit discourse of, say, hope get deformalized as pessimism inside hope, faith, and those cognates? This is a deconstructive question. I left this particular panel in that frame of mind. 

After lunch, Rizvana Bradley reflected on the meaning of pessimism in the cinematic image – how it is both done and undone in shifting modes of representation, and David Marriott offered a meta-reflection on pessimism as productive, fecund. Fanon was the central figure here, across the panel, and what it raised for me was the complexity of making pessimism visible in any and all forms of discourse. It is something evoked, but in that evocation it is linked, inextricably, to material practices of violence and exploitation. Cinema is such an interesting part of this link, though: the image itself is a material practice. 

Neil Roberts worked through a sketch of a genealogy of pessimism, marking out a few distinctive forms, and then juxtaposed it, not to optimism, but to the Caribbean notion of marronage. Neil has of course developed this notion of marronage in great detail in his published work, and here it was put in motion in very interesting ways. I think there is a lot to be said about marronage as a political and aesthetic practice – political in the sense of how oppressed communities make meaningful space outside regimes of anti-blackness, aesthetic in terms of how those same communities make cultural practices and values that are responsive to conditions of not just (or even) exploitation and violence, but interstitial world-making.

I’ve reserved a last comment for Bhakti Shringarpure’s presentation on pessimism in the context of migrant deaths crossing the Mediterranean. For me, this was the most pressing and crucial part of the symposium, reminding those of us who work as scholars (and think and feel as people) on the lives of Black people that the drowning of futures is not a question of the past and its memory. Rather, it is pressing on us in the present, in the faces and bodies of those who survive and those who carry the memories of the recently dead. The Mediterranean is another Middle Passage, this repetition coming out of a very different kind of migration forced by different forces, for sure, yet bound to the Atlantic precedent by the indifference and cruelty of Europe. This is such important work – a nice intervention in such questions can be found in the Warscapes volume on The Mediterranean…I learned so much reading it. Worth your time.

I love these symposiums. Look, being a professor is a job. We go to work each day, we have deadlines that bring about pressure and worry and pestering editors, we grade and grade, we prep courses, we burn out every academic year around April. But it is a special thing to sit for a day in a room and just discuss ideas. I can’t say we resolved anything. That’s not the aim of conversation, in the end. We are successful, I think, if we emerge from conversation knowing our questions better. 

I can say we did that much on this Saturday. Worth every penny of the Amherst College’s money.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *