notes from a trip to Paris

I am writing to you from the research library of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. As of today (Tuesday, January 8, 2019) I have only two days left in France. After returning, I’ll spend an evening in New Jersey, sleeping and doing laundry before returning to equally cold New Haven for yet another semester of grad school. I must admit, I’m not looking forward to going back. My time in Paris has been enjoyable. Besides not really having a taste for French food, I haven’t had anything negative to say at all. My ability to speak French (I’ll go into this in more detail below) grants me access to an anonymity that I imagine many American tourists cannot enjoy. When speaking to someone, they do not do the tourist thing with me, switching to English in order to facilitate communication. I have only had this happen one time during my time in Paris, and that was when I prompted a librarian in English about how to reserve my seat and access my texts. When on the trains, I find that I am not typically flagged as a non-Francophone foreigner, and I wonder if this is because of racial dynamics which encode what a Black person is and does in France. I won’t be able to really pick this apart in the next two days, but it’s food for thought.

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Slavery and History in Chamoiseau’s L’Esclave vieil homme et le molosse

This is a presentation script prepared for Christopher Miller’s course Slavery and its Aftermath in French and Francophone Literature.

L’esclave vieil homme et le molosse is a novel written by Martinican author and 1992 Prix Goncourt winner Patrick Chamoiseau, published originally by Gallimard in 1997. The novel tells the story of an old man who, under the spell of a mythical ailment known only as the décharge, flees captivity into the woods surrounding his master’s plantation. He is thereafter chased by the Master and his mastiff, the rest of the novel recounting the triptych of these three characters’ inevitable boundedness to one another. While there is so much to be said about this short text, my presentation today will attempt to situate Chamoiseau’s novel within a political and aesthetic discourse on history in relation to Martinique’s curious position within the French nationalist archipelago. When we read a novel like L’esclave vieil homme, we are not only reading a novel about a past which has been, within the French cultural and national memory, willfully repressed and unquestionably overlooked, but we are also, in our act of reading, contributing to a counternarrative, a counter-history which brings into questions contextualizes, resists and defies the dominant narrative, that thing which we call History with a capital H. My presentation will look exactly at the question of L’esclave vieil homme as a literary object which attempts to reconfigure the ways we ought to think about French History with a capital H as a historical imposition which subjects of les vieilles colonies in particular must endure. In doing so, I draw broad strokes around the complexities and intricacies of a particularly ultramarin possibility for postcolonialism, given that colonialism in the Antilles and Reunion never formally ended.

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abyssal antihumanism

Calvin Warren, Ontological Terror: Blackness, Nihilism and Emancipation, Duke University Press, 2018

Calvin Warren’s book Ontological Terror opens with an anecdote. Invited to “meditate on [the] globalized sadism” of antiblackness at a conference at which he anticipated “a festival of humanism in which presenters would share their solutions to the problem of antiblackness (if they acknowledged antiblackness),” Warren’s presentation is met with outright hostility from a crowd typically used to the “’yes we can!’ rhetoric and unbounded optimism” of what he defines as the Black humanist tradition. Early on in Ontological Terror, Warren cleaves himself from what he understands to be the mainstream of Black thinkers, philosophers and social critics by ascribing himself to a heavily Heideggerian camp of what can ostensibly be labeled “Afro-nihilism.” I do not offer this label glibly, in order to signal at the Afropessimist work which hums throughout Ontological Terror; I do so to highlight a specific agenda which is at the center of this short albeit sweeping text. Warren posits, in his response to the outrage of his critique of humanism, of the falsity and impossibility of social reform for what he perceives to be the hearthstone of Western (“world”) civilization – antiblackness, – that the source of the Black intellectual malaise in response to continued violence against Black people is precisely a Black intellectual indebtedness to humanism and postmetaphysics as frameworks wherein Black subjectivity can be isolated and liberated from the bondage of antiblackness. Warren does not posit a posthuman framework, insofar that the affix post may insinuate a departure from a previously established framework, but argues for a kind of antihumanism, an “ontological revolution” which departs from a European intellectual milieu which has been assimilated into a Black cultural perspective and moves towards a framework which can expose the “nothing” of Black being. Or, at least, this is what I read Ontological Terror to be doing. In order to redeem what in many ways is a troubling and disturbing text, I offer this absolutory reading, in hopes that my own interventions, from my intellectual and personal subject position, can situate a text like Ontological Terror. In many ways, this is not possible within our current academic, philosophical and cultural context – how exactly can we approach a humanistic study of Black life if we assume that Black people are in fact not human subjects?

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What’s in a text? A year ago, I wrote a post called why read? whose content and ruminations continue to shape my perspectives on grad school. In this post are the first grumblings of a profound feeling of dread that grows between me and the primary act of my profession – the task of reading. Although I barely broach the notion in that post, beneath the surface, you can pick out a discourse of what I shall call bibliophobia, or the fear of books. In writing this short piece, I hope to delve further into a series of logical and affective knots in my character, with the (perhaps naïve) hope that their exposition will in some way make these knots, these nodes of discomfort, a bit easier to undo.

While reading, I am struck by two feelings. The first is the will to understand what is being read. This goes beyond the basic skills of reading comprehension that are massaged into us as children, the analytical detective work of exposing what a text says. In many ways, this is related to my predisposition to a kind of obsessive and paranoiac anxiety, for all texts say something, but most texts say things to me which they do not seem to say to others. When reading a novel like Une vie de boy, I’m fascinated by questions of textuality, interiority and the diary form in ways which many critics seem to overlook. Within the academic profession, this is a positive factor; I am filling a gap in the scholarship of this particular novel with my own reading. Yet, it is the very idea that few people have looked at Une vie de boy from this perspective which frightens me. I find that I am frightened by the idea of my own unique reading, primarily because I am disturbed with the concept of misreading. I do not want to be wrong, although I resist the idea of a dominant reading.

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great expectations

It is no surprise that I am my greatest enemy. I’m impulsive, I am not very organized, and I am self-defeating. Yet, beneath it all, I believe, is a great potential. It is perhaps this potential, this possibility for greatness, that fuels the seasickness of my ego; a constant vacillation between a tremendous ambition and an ever-present feeling of dread.

It’s a week into the semester and I’m feeling a bit drained. I have not done a good job of anticipating the tidal wave which is the school year. This summer, as I have already said, was mild and calm. I spent time collecting myself, getting things in order, and taking stock of a tumultuous year. Yet, the semester has begun and I feel already partially undone. Whatever tidying and sealing I did this summer has already started to fray at the edges and untie itself. This much is to be expected, but not at so rapid a pace. A summer spent reading and trying to inhabit the spirit of the “specialist,” to feel knowledgeable about a certain topic or corpus; one week has thrown an entire three months into question. Yet, I refuse to let graduate school rob me of my charisma and of my sense of power.

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Unconscionable feelings: a primer for everyday affect theory

To lead you to an overwhelming question …
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.

TS Eliot, “The Lovesong of J Alfred Prufrock”

Feelings never had no ethics,
Feelings never have been ethical.

Devonte Hynes (Blood Orange), “Nappy Wonder,” Negro Swan

What is an argument, really? A disagreement, yes, but what is it beneath that? What can we see when we peel away the skin of a dispute and peer inside? A woman is arguing with her boyfriend over something small and insignificant; leaving the cap off the toothpaste, dropping his shoes in the foyer when he comes in from work, farting under the sheets of their communal bed. These are small, if annoying, offenses. But what do they say? What she thinks is: “I find these things that you do without thinking annoying.” This is a valid point, even if more laidback people would be prone to shrug at what can be easily written off as “anal retention” or “nitpickiness.” Yet, her boyfriend resists her claims, arguing that his girlfriend is obsessed with order and cleanliness, that it is not in his nature to be so mindlessly tidy. He turns the conversation on its head by claiming that the perception of his negative cleanliness is actually the presence of her excess of tidiness, her fascist need for control. This is an argument because beneath the surface of minutia and bullshit, of petty squabbles, is a deeper issue which rises to the surface, which ceases to just be affect, “unconscionable feelings,” in the moment of linguistic interchange. What is missing is a critique of feeling, not thinking.

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year in review: onwards

If you try your best, you can.
If you try your best, you can.
The best you can is good enough.

“Optimistic,” Radiohead, Kid A

It’s the end of August and school is about to start again. For the past month, I’ve been trying to figure out how I feel about my upcoming second year of graduate school. Throughout this summer I’ve been slowly and carefully reading the marginalia from my first year of graduate study, unpacking situations, reliving conversations, and trying to learn from my experiences. I was unhappy, perhaps the most unhappy I’ve ever been in my life. Everything I had once thought about myself, the great pillar of my self-worth, seemed suddenly called into question. I was worried that I had made a mistake in coming to grad school, or in picking Yale, or in deciding on a research topic which seemed to get more frayed and frayed at its edges. I was unsure of what it meant to be a scholar, of how scholarly writing or scholarly reading should look. I was disenchanted with academia and uncertain of the weight of my dreams. I was unsure of myself as a person, not really aware of how people understood me, displeased with how my friends had begun to treat me, and unsure of how to remedy these situations. I was very lonely, and I felt at times as if no one wanted to be around me. I began to think I was a person undeserving of close friends.

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Fantastical decolonization in Souleymane Cissé’s Yeelen

I have been studying African cinema for about three years now, and have mostly focused on representations of neo/postcolonial Africa and Africans. Films like Ousmane Sembène’s, La Noire de…, Alain Gomis’ L’Afrance, Abderrahmane Sissako’s Bamako and S. Pierre Yameogo’s Moi et mon blanc figure quite prevalently in my study of the aesthetics and politics of a decolonial African cinema dedicated towards the restitution of African society and the reconstruction of African civilization in the wake of the veritable identarian holocaust which was European colonization. This has often led African cinema to have a markedly anti-European valence, the likes of which can be attributed to the means by which Western Europe contributes to the active process of delimiting an endless African potentiality. Yet, given that African cinema, like African literature, is destined for wider circulation in markedly Euro-American markets, the politics of African cinema’s intellectual and political discourse are always subject to the encroaching Western gaze. African directors create in ways, as Samuel Lelièvre writes, which not only signify an essential(ized) African identity while at the same time perilously working to reinvent the very ideas of Africa and Africans (Lelièvre 51). From this lens, much of African cinema responding evidently to the issues plaguing burgeoning African nations creates the illusion of the perpetually failed state, the broken people and the hopelessly dark continent, insofar that the political project of African cinema is reinscribed by its very ontology as “other.” The question of perspective, audience and vantage recode and rewrite the African film in ways which directors cannot predict or avoid. From its very conception, African cinema has had to contend with not only the political implications of a decolonial medium oftentimes critical of the contemporary regimes in place –censure was a serious threat to the burgeoning African film industry – but they also continually were met with a kind of insurmountable alterity from the perspective of European filmgoers and cinephiles perhaps unfamiliar with Africa outside of what they had been hitherto told, and what few African films they had seen in international festivals.

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Cinemas of racial theory, theories of racial cinema

At the end of this semester, I was given the assignment to read a recent book of film scholarship and write about its applicability in a course called “Foundations of Film and Media.” Some background information is warranted: I was “suggested” to take these class by the instructor, with whom I had met when visiting Yale, and with whom I had hoped to work on Francophone African cinema. The course read to me as the title suggested: the “foundations” of studying film as an object of study. Yet, I did not know that I was signing up for a class which would be so profoundly focused on theories of cinema, a theoretical canon I would learn to somewhat despise before the semester’s end. This is not at all to the discredit of Professor Andrew, who taught the class, or film theorists in general, so much as it was me becoming aware of what it is that film scholars do and what  it was that I believed that they did. My work with film is markedly literary and thematic. I am more concerned with the content of film than I am with its shape and texture; I want to know what film says and how we make sense of what it says within larger epistemologies of meaning-making, society and stigma. As I discovered that the class was, in fact, not on these ideas, I became somewhat disenchanted. This “review” responds to the given assignment, focusing on Jared Sexton’s latest book, Black Masculinity and the Cinema of Policing. Part of the prompt was the question whether the chosen book would figure appropriately on the syllabus for that class. I am sharing this review primarily because of the questions it poses not only about Sexton’s text, but also because of broader conceptual issues in film theory as an academic discipline at times ambivalent or perhaps even hostile to questions of race and representation. Yet, Sexton’s book, as I argue, is unaware of how to integrate film theory into a broader reading of cultural and social ideas in films, for form, it seems, does little to isolate these ideas for the cultural studies scholar. This only outlines the opposite of this fact, that social criticism and exegesis remain domains outside of the purview of the film theorist who deals with film as an allegedly “universal” language which, weirdly enough, contains no social significance.

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Year in review: picking myself back up

I haven’t been doing well this year. Lots of things have happened (that’s intentionally vague) and I didn’t have any time during the semester to sit down and process everything. Perhaps this is why the summer is always terrible for me; I suddenly have all of this idle time to think about the previous semester, to unpack statements, review glances, scrutinize past decisions. And it’s only coincidental that my summers are always full of idle time to just sit around and think, instead of busy doing things, being places, focusing on something more present. Anyways, I have been trying to write a post reviewing my first year of graduate school. Each time I sat down to type it out, I was disappointed with what I produced. It is not wise for me to begin writing when I am already anxious or sad, and while that may have worked in the past, I find it only makes me feel worse, while also making me self-conscious about the language and syntax I am using. The first draft was okay, but I lost it. The second draft was awful, and I haven’t looked at it. I am feeling optimistic about this one, although I know that it will take multiple posts to really doing the work of isolating and growing from the past year.

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