This is a really thoughtful and interesting review. I appreciate it so much because it engages with the possibilities of my book, but also asks some key questions – critical in formulation, though, honestly, I think they’re more a matter of clarification. It’s interesting to read readers. They find ways that your book might be significant (Miguel does that here in ways I so appreciate), and they find aspects that aren’t clear or remain under-articulated (he also does that in important ways). Super grateful for his thinkerly work in this piece.
I’m so happy the translation of Sortir de la grande nuit is out (with another essay included). This is probably my favorite of Mbembe‘s work. Coupled with the translation of Politiques de l’inimitié (Necropolitics) and of course Critique de la raison nègre, this is some of the most compelling work on decolonization … really glad this is all available now for people who do not read French.
I have to say, too, that Mbembe is the only writer to get me excitedly back to looking at Fanon, whatever very real and deep reservations I have about Fanon and Fanon scholarship. But I think what’s now Out of the Dark Night opens really new horizons, especially in the “Epilogue”:
Here is a final draft version of the syllabus for my S’21 course “Imagining ‘the Americas.'” The course engages the question of how conquest and the Middle Passage haunt the memory and history of the hemisphere, infusing our language of self, other, and community and the pathologies and fecundities of cultural production. Our assertion is a plain fact: “the Americas” is a phrase synonymous with trauma and loss. Conquest and the Middle Passage are originary events that set in motion particular, peculiar, and site-specific notions of memory and history. How to understand these origins and their ghosts is explored through critical essays, polemics, poetry, film, and novels that blend fiction and imaginative history.
Here is a draft of a new essay on the afropostmodern, in which I refer to parts of Jean-François Lyotard’s work in order to frame a sense of the postmodern turn in afro-Caribbean theory. (It is for a volume on Lyotard’s legacy.) I argue that the language of metanarrative and differend underscores important features of the afropostmodern – namely, in the work of Édouard Glissant and Derek Walcott – around the fecundity of contradiction and paradox. A snippet:
And if we return to Lyotard, this site of modernity/postmodernity offers a twist on the story of the postmodern and the differend, shifting from the consequences of Lyotard’s conceptions, in which anti-state and anti-imperial agitation works against the violence of modernity in our moment, and toward a notion of the afropostmodern as an originary interruption, disruption, and contestation of modernity’s violence in the very moment of its inception. The question, then, is not simply how postmodern strategies mitigate and disrupt conventional forms of violence, but also how dating or periodizing the postmodern in the moment of modernity’s emergence reveals an alternative mode of thought in the shadows of Europe’s worst excess. Further, when we see this sort of emergence-at-origin, we catch sight of something utterly compelling and revolutionary: the creation of worlds-becoming that work with fragments, work without strategies of legitimation, and therefore work without what Lyotard calls the fantasied “universal genre of discourse” that regulates difference. I am thinking here of the opening pages of The Differend in which Lyotard sets out the problem: “Given 1) the impossibility of avoiding conflicts (the impossibility of indifference) and 2) the absence of a universal genre of discourse to regulate them (or, if you prefer, the inevitable partiality of the judge): to find, if not what can legitimate judgement (the ‘good’ linkage), then at least how to save the honor of thinking.” (The Differend, xii) Thinking becomes, in the afropostmodern, a thinking of becoming – but always a becoming without reference to a possible being that stabilizes. Glissant, for that reason, characterizes Relation, his term for afropostmodern thinking, as rhizomatic and (on the model of theoretical physics) chaotic. Nomadic without the desire to set up a final or single root. A Deleuzean term, but one adopted in response to the demands of thinking in the wake of the failure of metanarratives of race, origin, or political principles to negotiate and neutralize contradiction, paradox – the threats to the modern order and its authoritarian impulses.
Here is a draft of an essay entitled “On the Fecundity of Small Places,” which I’ve written for a volume on Africana theory – the idea, its past, and its future prospects. I make a very simple argument: what remains so potent and compelling about Africana theory is the turn to the vernacular, to the worlds expressive cultures make, and how a shift away from “the world stage” shifts our understanding of epistemology and ontology. The essay makes reference to a whole cluster of thinkers in order to evoke the “small place” as a transformative site, not as simply a counter to the world stage, but as a critique of the very idea. Every place, every rooted sense of ideas, is a small place. Thinking on that paradigm, I conclude, does important decolonial work in critically dismantling the very idea of center. The small place as cluster and constellation rather than margin.
The turn to small places and the fecundity of their conditions – creolism, vernacularity, the blues aesthetic, just to name a few – draws attention to the facts of Black cultural life in the Americas, emphasizing the limitations or even violence of deficiency models of analysis. The deficiency model imagines Black life under conditions of oppression and unimaginable, trans-generational violence as just that: structured entirely from the inside by the abjection projected by white violence. We see this in so much social science, as well as the anecdote-critic inclusion of Black texts and thinkers as part of the diversification of curricula and research programmes. We also see this in the pessimist strain of the black Atlantic tradition, which has turned the literary nihilism of a Richard Wright and speculations of an early Fanon into thumbnail sketches of an ontology and libidinal economy under the rubric of afropessimism. In these cases, though, the deficiency model is strangely colonized by notions of the common, of Being as such, and therefore iterations of what used to be called “the world-stage.” The turn to small places and the fecundity of their conditions upends that mode of analysis in a shift from fundamental ontology (the common, the world, the Umwelt of antiblackness) to regional ontological concerns that generate languages, beliefs, practices, and theorizations that mobilize Black life outside the white gaze – in Baldwin’s phrase, “the relation Negroes bear to one another.” In that bearing are the components of world-making. In a world-made outside the white gaze, small places emerge as not only forms of resistance, disruption, and the unassimilable (they are surely that), but also, and most emphatically, as entire worlds of meaning, significance, and life.
The course follows a largely chronological path, beginning with her Autobiography and concluding with the speeches and essays included in Freedom is a Constant Struggle. I do begin the course with her essay “Lecture on Liberation” in order to set up a framework for interpreting not only essays and books, but also how and why her work develops as it does. The lecture makes it clear that dialectical engagement – negation, negotiation of life-death struggle, and confrontation – is a constant process. The example of Frederick Douglass is important for that reason alone: in Narrative, Douglass describes his defeat of Covey in physical struggle as the moment he became un-enslaved, free in some fundamental sense. This is crucial for thinking about liberation. But the fundaments of freedom are the basis of further struggle and confrontation and overcoming. The necessity of more dialectic. And so when Davis engages so many new sites at each turn in her work, it is not curiosity or interest alone, but rather the movement of dialect toward further elevation of liberation as theory, practice, and material accomplishment – struggle, in a word.
As well, I frame the course materials with her own critical assessments of the images of her and her time in two later essays on the afro as photographic icon and nationalism as a political movement and worldview.
This course is taught remotely under COVID-19 restrictions, so my evaluation is focused on short, regular writing on a course blog (blotted out for student privacy purposes) that will also, I hope, replicate discussion.
It’s hard to know what to say in this moment.
The emergence of COVID-19, coronavirus, ‘rona, whatever you call it … it’s been terrifying and disorienting. What is there to say? There is science. I’ll leave that to the scientists. There is politics. I have a lot to say about that. And so do you. The unevenness of our political leadership and voices? Astonishing and its own kind of terrifying.
I won’t pretend to be a scientist and prognosticate about what’s to come.
But I’ve been struck over the past few weeks by the specificity of this anxiety we all feel, and how, for me, that anxiety draws on a very particular set of affects. Affects, I’d say, that are produced by what’s come to be called “modernity” and the forms of life it makes possible, even necessary.
I’m sure people who teach film exclusively or near-exclusively have layered techniques for guiding discussion and orienting people properly toward cinematic language, but I really struggle to keep students on track. This is especially the case with my course on Spike Lee, which I’m finishing up now. It’s so hard to get them to think about a given film as something more than a reality show in which we’re invited to judge and criticize the characters – something that’s cruel and disgusting about reality television, but inherent to the genre. Cinema isn’t that. Yet, in class, I find it’s really hard to keep students from thinking that way. I understand the impulse. We all talk about characters while exiting the movie theater, often gossiping about them as if they were casual friends. Scholarship and classrooms? We have to be different.