notes on method I: lessons from the group chat

A week or so ago, I had a debate with my siblings. It started off as typical group-chat fare: I ask a difficult question, with an interest in seeing how people think about the question, rather than coming up with a solution. My question was: “Do y’all think we were just ‘chilling’ in Africa before the Europeans arrived?” Immediately, my eldest brother was suspicious:

Jason: ppl had civilizations, empires, villages, cities. im not sure what you are looking for

My question, which I did not intend to be provocative but invariably was, was more rooted in the construction of history — its inherently fictitious nature — than in documenting a set of historical truths. By outlining the fictions of history, I mean to dispel the pretense to truth that makes certain fictions viable as histories and bars others from consideration as myths, legends or mere stories. In this case, I am questioning the common history of blackness endemic to a particular brand of post-Négritude thinkers, call them hoteps or neo-Négritudists or Afrocentrists. I am not interested in telling you that Molefi Kete Asante is wrong because I don’t think he is anymore wrong than Orlando Patterson or David Brion Davis. Rather, historians and philosophers of history endeavor to narrativize history, to make past events make sense within a continuity, and to explain what had hitherto remained inexplicable. Once you acknowledge that all history is fiction, you are able to ask an entirely new set of questions that read to those who accept history-as-fact as little more than idle provocation. As I’ve said to friends in passing, the critic is ultimately a mad person. But I’ll save this for another post.

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good riddance

I began 2019 on a plane to Paris. I was going to conduct some archival research, or at least this was my excuse. In hindsight, I didn’t really do much research, although I did spend most of my time in the belly of the BnF. I went for the purpose of pushing myself to do something I found kind of frightening. The prospect of traveling to another country unaccompanied made me a bit too aware of how free I truly am. I write this two days after leaving the infantile protection I still enjoy within my parent’s presence, having returned to New Haven where I’m entirely an adult, like it or not. A year ago, the notion of my independence, much coveted as a child, filled me with an unanticipated kind of dread. Even though I had technically been living on my own as an adult during my first two years of grad school, I hardly felt as if I really was independent. Yale had taken over my guardianship, was paying me an allowance, taking me to my doctor’s appointments while giving me enough space to think I was doing all of these things myself (all that’s changed is my awareness of this). Yet, I still found myself frightened by my own freedom. The existential cliff of being autonomous and ungoverned, finally cast off into dark and ominous waters. I could go to Paris and have experiences I think I need. I could stay and wonder what would have happened had I gone. In both scenarios, I would be forced to bear my own consequences.

            I had to acknowledge that it was me who controlled the tempo and key of my life.

                        That this frightened me so much, as I was forcing myself to apply for the grants, come up with the project description, get the letters of recommendation, buy my tickets, and book my lodging, told me one important thing about myself: I did not trust myself. I had my freedom finally, but I did not know what freedom meant or that freedom could possibly feel so undesirable once it was attained. The burden of choice, the threat of repercussions. Placed atop my feigned belief in being able to handle anything the world or God threw my way, my mental composition seemed unfit to handle the everyday crisis of being. At times I thought I wouldn’t be able to do it, that things were too hard. Like most people my age, I leaned into the web of lies that tells us that other people can steel our resolve, that things like love and companionship can illuminate the sea’s darkness. I grew lovesick for love I’ve never had. The notion of friends having social connections to which I was not firmly attached bothered me, because I perceived of their activities together, as friends among themselves, as based on my exclusion. How absurd, but one cannot really be aware of oneself when they are so preconditioned to silence reason when feeling takes the mic. I expected people to just “get me” and for me to just “get people,” because it all seemed so easy when I looked in on other people’s lives.

            My voyeurism told me that I was insufficient in some way. I had convinced myself that something out there could fix the aching lack, and I was disappointed when I could not manage to find this something.

            All the while, I had not been able to name what was ailing me.

            I was too naïve to realize that my pain wasn’t any different than anyone else’s, and that for most it was a tolerable, perhaps even permissible, pain. A pain for which the word pain may seem even too harsh, too acute. Not a pain, but an ache. Not an ache, but discomfort. A bit of gas Indigestion. Nausea.

I started wondering at 14 if, when I was being assembled at the plant, someone had fastened something a bit too tight

Added a bit too much of a strong ingredient.
Overcooked, overstuffed, ruined it?

Had someone let the pot boil dry?
And if so, must the boy be thrown away?

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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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