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?
What follows is not necessarily a review; I am not qualified enough to offer anything other than a cursory outline of what Ontological Terror does. Warren’s unquestioned reliance of Heidegger, “ontometaphysics” and continental philosophy belies a deep contradiction between what he proposes is his project (to think about the nonontology of Black people while also counterintuitively injecting ontological and metaphysical discourse with instances of the Black archive). While Warren is certainly not the first to propose antihumanism as a possible sortie from the snares of ontological thinking about the Black condition, what I argue is Warren’s missing link is precisely his question of the social as the site wherein ontology fails to explain Black being (or as he writes it being). Part of this is due to the troublesome methodologies and misreadings which quickly disengage the Black humanist, as well as the rather unsatisfying solution to Black humanism’s failures: abyssal antihumanism. Therefore, my intention in this essay is to provide a response to Warren’s work, to critique his processes, his readings and misreadings, and to better provide a way of reading Ontological Terror as both a Black person living in an antiblack world, and as a Black humanist dedicated, even with a degree of bad faith, to the naïve ideas of social reform which Warren decries as incompatible with the current social order.
Ontological Terror is composed of six sections. The introduction provides a framework for his major theoretical contributions and situates his work within philosophical, metaphysical and historical discourses of blackness and freedom. It is here where Warren outlines his indebtedness to the thinking of Martin Heidegger, his major interlocuter, primarily in his declaration “that black being incarnates metaphysical nothing, the terror of metaphysics, in an antiblack world.” (Warren 5) The awareness of one’s metaphysical nothingness produces terror – “the terror that ontological security is gone, the terror that ethical claims no longer have an anchor, and the terror of inhabiting existence outside the precincts of humanity and its humanism.” (Warren 4) These ideas prove to be fundamentally incompatible with the quality of freedom, which Warren, following Heidegger, argues is ontological (Warren 15). It was Frantz Fanon, who Warren cites quite frequently, who argued that ontology, “once we have once and for all set aside existence, does not allow us to understand the being of the Black person.” (Fanon 90) (translation & emphasis mine) Yet, the reasons are different. For Fanon, ontology can only explain that Black people exist, and cannot bear the weight of what blackness signifies on its own, of how the Noir become Noir as a category, as a social typology. For Warren, this question is rendered impossible by the question of the ontometaphyical condition of the Black person, which is significantly divorced from the social milieus which produce ontometaphysical conditions. Blackness exists only in relation to Whiteness, Fanon states; “Because the Black person no longer has to be just Black, but to be Black in relation to the White person.” (Fanon 90) (translation & emphasis mine).
The subsequent chapters follow the same logic. Chapter one focuses primarily on a phenomenological approach to thinking about Black being, with an emphasis on Afropessimist scholarship which relegates the condition of Blackness to a historical quandary of racial enslavement and individual freedom. Warren’s theorizations on the curious condition of the “free black” or freedpeople is in my opinion one of the book’s most generative contributions to the field of Black phenomenology, primarily because these ideas allow us to understand the apartness of Black freedom as manumission, as opposed to racially unmarked freedom as inborn right. Chapter two deals with the question of law as a mechanism wherein metaphysical (and I would argue social/ideological) discourses are concretized into social fact, and vice versa. Here he offers his reading of the “freedom paper” as a curious object of study of phenomenological and ontological critique, the likes of which, he complains, has been absent from mainstream philosophical discourse on being. His analysis of the freedom papers, which he argues “serves as ‘ontological’ structures for free blacks” is quite helpful for thinking through the series of contradictions which were enacted to reify a fundamental Black otherness, an apartness, which began in slavery and persists to this day. The freedom paper is in many ways a fetish commodity whose value is not determined by exchange value, but by the philosophical significance which it represents to its possessor or usurper. To lose that paper is to cease to be a social person; or to be reminded of the inherent inhumanity which the acquisition of the freedom paper sought to impossibly rectify – to lose the freedom paper, or to have it taken away, is to descend back into terror.
Chapter three follows chapter two by looking at the relationship between Blackness and scientific discourse. Many people have written on this intersection before, but Warren provides a framework for understanding the disturbance which Black bodies present to a scientific audience, how the Black body with its abnormalities signifies the very “nothing” which metaphysics and sciences seeks to both destroy (in order to present a pure, safe world) as well as maintain (insofar that Black abject otherness is necessary to maintain notions of the healthy human subject.) Black people, according to Warren, exist as “available equipment” because of the medical question of their abject apartness and their uncanny verisimilitude to the white human. Of his several case studies, his critique of Samuel Cartwright’s concept of drapetomania is quite useful for thinking through the relationship between madness, violence and the (human) sciences. I found this section fascinating mostly because the runaway slave was deemed a medical abnormality as well as a broken commodity; the blurring of the lines between psychology (a markedly human field of study), economics (insofar that slaves are movable property) and medical science (the presumption that drapetomania can be cured, that the optimal/median psychological state of the enslaved is a complicity with their state of bondage and unfreedom) is quite well articulated. Chapter four finishes chapter three’s investigation through a study of “catachrestic fantasies” produced by nineteenth century visual culture. Here is where Warren gets the closest to the question of the social underpinnings of Black being, although he never successfully crosses that threshold. Through examining depictions of free black people through the guise of an American literate public, Warren outlines catachresis (borrowing Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s usage) as a rupture in the field of representation, a kind of Lacanian anxiety which destroys the very referent it seeks to conjure into existence. (Warren 144) Warren then provides a way of reading the archive for these moments of misunderstanding or misinterpretation of Black social self-understanding, the likes of which reify a continually resisted tradition in Black humanist scholarship (particularly that of Afropessimism) to equate the status of the enslaved to those of farm animals, to absolve the enslaved subject of their humanity. In pointing this out, the category of the human, as Giorgio Agamben and Achille Mbembe offer us in their work, can be given as well as taken away from a subject. Yet, Warren’s question in Ontological Terror remain trenchant to the aftermath of the dispossession of one’s humanity: what is a Black person if not a human being?
In general, Ontological Terror reads as a manifesto for a new antihumanist Afro-nihilist tradition. It claims that the old way of doing things, of studying the Black condition, is wrong, and that we must inaugurate a new tradition wherein Blackness can be more adequately understood. There is something disabling and disarming about Black humanist scholarship which begs not reform, but disavowal. In many ways, this is an exhilarating claim – but his suggestion, a dive into the literal abyss of antihumanism, quells that exhilaration, replacing it only with a lack of critical self-awareness. In many ways, Warren’s nihilism suggests we jettison hope in general, but what he really suggests is that we jettison hope in this particular world. The ways that that hope is framed and structured, however, are not the culprits of the problem of antiblackness – his critical gaze, the congregation to which he is preaching, is not the perpetrators of “global antiblackness” but the very scholars, thinkers and writers who he accuses of naïve hopefulness, individuals who, too, no longer have hope in this particular world. In general, Warren’s text reads as a series of critical (in both senses of the word) misreadings and misquotings, made apparent by his linguistic tic of referring to what authors would say or could say in the conditional. He writes that Fanon would agree with a claim, or that Saidiya Hartman would argue, underpinning a critical lack of confidence in his source materials, the likes of which colors Ontological Terror as a text unsure of its own convictions. It is, of course, very difficult to critique an institution as large and significant as Black humanism, but the ways that Warren accomplishes this task are framed through arguments which points us towards the same conclusions of the humanists he views as accomplishing too little.
This book is groundbreaking because it opens the door to think more critically about Black nonbeing, or being as social fact, as historical truth. But it does not allow us to think about what would be the “end of the world,” inaugurated by the collective, global decision to give up antiblackness as one of the world’s many political superstructures. This, Warren understands: he is not trying to save this world. Yet, I find the solution of antihumanism, as he posits it, to be just as dissatisfactory as the world in which we live. What is to be gained by reifying the historical imposition of nonhumanity onto Black people, of accepting the gospel truth of one’s apartness? Does this provide us with the space to think about Blackness in new ways, to create new liaisons with other antihuman and posthuman thinking? Or does this provide the necessary ontometaphysical grounds for Black extermination? If Western civilization is built on the backs of Black people purported to be, in Erving Goffman’s words, “not quite human beings,” how does the acquiescence into the status of the nonhuman allow us to attain the kind of being we have been historically denied?
This is the disturbing rhetoric of Ontological Terror. The existential drama of Black existence is underpinned by the social understanding of the Black person as not quite a human being in tandem with their own cogito which posits human status. This is the true cause of drapetomania, of fugitivity; the impossible escape from bondage circumscribed unto the Black body; the impossible escape from the understanding of one’s self as not wholly human. Even if Black humanist scholarship works within an asymptotic framework which seeks to restitute Black humanity from the dregs of human history, I personally, as a Black person, and as an academic doing the work of Black studies, have more faith in an institution I know personally will never achieve its goals, than in the beckoning abyss of my literal and metaphysical destruction.
Featured Image: Wangechi Mutu, You Are My Sunshine
Du Bois, W. E. B. (William Edward Burghardt). The Souls of Black Folk, Essays and Sketches. Chicago, A. C. McClurg & co., 1903. Internet Archive, http://archive.org/details/cu31924024920492.
Fanon, Frantz. Peau Noire, Masques Blancs. Editions Points, 2015.
Warren, Calvin L. Ontological Terror: Blackness, Nihilism, and Emancipation. Duke University Press Books, 2018.
 For issues of space, I was not able to include an analysis of how Warren misquotes, although I will leave you with one startling instance, which happens in Chapter One. Here, Warren states: “Dubois [sic] asked a variation of this question: ‘What does it mean to be a problem?’” (Warren 29) The actual quote from Souls of Black Folk is “What does it mean to be a problem?” (Du Bois 1) What’s important to note here is Warren’s process of assimilating Du Bois into a metaphysical discourse through his détournement of the phrase, although Du Bois, interestingly enough, asks a phenomenological question. It is phenomenology in particular which Warren posits is a way of better understanding Black being, although he curiously misquotes what is perhaps one of the most cited quotes in African-American phenomenological thinking.