The View from Nowhere

On Frank Wilderson’s Afropessimism

November 8, 2020

The cover of the book Afropessimism
Afropessimism
by Frank Wilderson
Liveright
2020

“Anti-Blackness cannot stand.” Thus closed the final sentence of the second paragraph of a missive from my university’s central administration. A noose had just been draped, haphazardly, from a street sign at the threshold of campus. Management’s been picking up, it turns out, what radical Black Studies scholars have been putting down. The communiqué in question was issued, with official sanction, just a month after an op-ed from Black Studies scholar kihana miraya ross hit the New York Times op-ed page.1kihana miraya ross, “Call It What It Is: Anti-Blackness,” New York Times, June 4, 2020. “Call it what it is,” the op-ed’s title exhorted, referring to the murderous accretion of forces that stole the lives of George Floyd and innumerable others: “Anti-Blackness.”

Here in one of the world’s most widely read publications, ross insists that “antiBlackness,” rather than racism, is the language we need to understand the massive uprisings of May and June this year in their specificity. For her, “racism” is too generic a term to draw a connection necessary to grasp: namely, the interdependent relationship between the systematic production of violence against Black people and the birth of the modern world. “Anti-Blackness” by contrast, points to the “inability” of that very world to “recognize Black humanity.”

To be sure, ross almost certainly understood her op-ed as complementing or enriching those calls, from the streets and elsewhere, to defund or abolish the police. Understood in this way, hers was an attempt to theorize—and by theorizing to complement—what Black folks were already putting into practice in the streets. Perhaps also she saw herself running interference against efforts in the mainstream press to displace or narrow the focus to individual police officers, or particular cities by recentering the indictment on the United States itself. Insisting on the origins of antiBlackness in modern chattel slavery, moreover, might offer a shield against appropriative efforts by nonBlack groups who, in good or bad faith, might seek to siphon away the energy of the moment.

And still it is curious: against the background of worldwide protests calling for the defunding, and in many cases, the abolition of policing, ross has little to say about what should be done, aside from shifting the interpretive frame. In fact, she seems to risk deflecting focus from the police entirely. “Let’s stop saying racism…or worse yet, that a racist police officer killed George Floyd,” she writes. Rather, shifting the lens to antiBlackness gestures to a problem that needs to be addressed, first and foremost, by a shift in recognition. Ross is asking us to explain the cause of police violence differently: “George Floyd was killed because antiBlackness is endemic to…how all of us make sense of the social, economic, historical and cultural dimensions of human life.”

If ross intended her theorization of antiBlackness to complement or enhance the demands to abolish the police, she may have overestimated the radicality of shifting the lens. After all, my university began explicitly naming and condemning antiBlackness as such while it continued its half-year campaign of strike-breaking and counterinsurgency. Referring publicly to the noose as an expression of antiBlackness, it turns out, did not occasion an ethical reflection on the fact that the institution had spent millions of dollars on riot-gear-adorned police to delegitimize and attack protesters—many of them studen workers of color—at the picket line of a wildcat strike. From the administration’s perspective, the general condemnation stood on its own as a sufficient gesture.

My claim comes into clearer relief when we connect ross’s op-ed to a larger school of thinking from which she borrows the language of “antiBlackness,” and the work from that school she cites when speaking of the “gratuitous and unrelenting” character of antiBlack violence. The school of thought goes by the name of Afropessimism, elaborated in a book by the same name, released this year by Frank B. Wilderson, III, a professor of African American Studies and Drama at the University of California, Irvine.

Afropessimism synthesizes and extends the analysis from Wilderson’s two previous books, his 2008 memoir, Incognegro, and Red, White, and Black (2010), a book of political theory presented as a contribution to film studies.2Frank B. Wilderson, III, Incognegro: A Memoir of Exile and Apartheid (Boston: South End Press, 2008); Frank B. Wilderson, III, Red, White, and Black: Cinema and the Structure of U.S. Antagonisms (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010). Readers unfamiliar with Wilderson’s name will have almost certainly been touched by the collateral impact of his writing. Wilderson, born in 1956, is a baby boomer, but the impact of his thinking has played an important role in shaping the terms, parameters, and habits shared by subsequent generations of liberal-left activists in the US and Western Europe. When I started reading Afropessimist scholarship just over a decade ago, antiBlackness was a term that marked the contours of a very particular set of academic debates within the field of Black Studies.

Today that term belongs to the everyday vocabulary of many who know little of the context of its inception, which began when Wilderson was a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley.3Frank B. Wilderson, III, “Gramsci’s Black Marx: Whither the Slave in Civil Society?” Social Identities 9, no. 2 (2003): 225-40; Saidiya V. Hartman and Frank B. Wilderson, III. “The Position of the Unthought.” Qui Parle 13, no. 2 (2003): 183-201. Wilderson credits the official emergence of that theory to the latter half of his time at Berkeley. Afropessimism posits, first and foremost, that the structure of the modern world owes itself to a durable and unchanging relation: the human in the modern world is constituted by, dependent on, and committed to antiBlack violence.

But by the logic of Afropessimism, there is no need to think that the university was operating in bad faith here, by publicly condemning antiBlackness while at the same time perpetuating it through continued investment in the police. No: my point is simpler: that the university was acting in step with the spirit of Afropessimism, at least insofar as the production of recognition of antiBlackness had become an end in itself. For the university, that is, the practice of Afropessimist interpretation was complete, insofar as it took the form of a living and viable alternative to reckoning seriously with defunding or abolishing the police.

Wilderson’s Afropessimism has been described by several of its reviewers as a hybrid work of memoir and theory. But I would stop short of characterizing the autobiographical content of the book as memoir for the same reason that I would hesitate to use the term to describe, say, Augustine’s Confessions. There is a division of labor between autobiography and theory wherein the former selects the raw material, that, through various extractive processes, is shaped into the latter. The autobiography is organized in order to authorize the theory.

Published on a subsidiary of W.W. Norton & Company, Afropessimism is a commercial trade, and not an academic, text. As such, the way it navigates genre speaks to how the book anticipates its market. If what makes it marketable is its use of autobiography as a narrative and aesthetic relay for reaching consumers in audiences who might be less inclined to purchase and read academic theory, then autobiography itself becomes part of the  theoretical apparatus. This also makes for some trickiness: the same promiscuity of genre that makes Afropessimism a compelling and textured read makes also for a book that presents problems to a critical reader. Relating critically to a theoretical text means, among many other things, paying careful attention to how it uses evidence. It means assessing the extent to which the evidence proffered is capable of withstanding the claims that the evidence is used to ground. But here’s the rub: doing so in this situation means that taking the book seriously as a work of theory— a seriousness that it seems to invite—means risking, at each turn, looking like a bit of a jerk. Why? Because it requires relating critically to the theoretical apparatus in its entirety—including its autobiographical moments— in order to generate space for thinking differently. This means that the autobiographical details become part of the object of critique. I will leave it to the reader to ponder what broader purposes might be served by a genre of theorization that seems so nicely choreographed to set a would-be critic up for the charge of an ad hominem attack.

As a theory, Afropessimism claims as an objective fact that the world runs, parasitically, on the reproduction of antiBlack violence. One of the features of this arrangement helps to explain the durability of this violence over time. For Afropessimists, antiBlackness can’t be reduced to white supremacy; rather, the theory claims, the world’s nonBlack oppressed imagine and enact their struggles for liberation, implicitly and/or explicitly, on the freedom not to be Black. What is objective, then, is that antiBlackness describes not simply the character of the structure by which Black people are oppressed, but the arrangement of the structure by which nonBlack people articulate what it means to be free.

If the activist tradition of Black autobiography seeks to represent a self that can work, with others, to change the world, what to do when one has already theorized the self as socially dead, as the result of a world intransigently invested in that death?

Thus emerges a problem for the Afro-pessimist with autobiographical intentions: if the activist tradition of Black autobiography seeks to represent a self that can work, with others, to change the world, how should one proceed when the concept of the self has been theorized as socially dead, as the result of a world intransigently invested in that death? Theory becomes the answer here, even if—or precisely because—it resolves nothing. “Blackness,” writes Wilderson’s colleague Jared Sexton, “is theory itself.”4Jared Sexton, “Ante-Anti-Blackness: Afterthoughts,” Lateral 1 (2012).

Indeed, the idea here is that in reckoning with the fact that his Blackness is akin to slaveness, that slaveness is the experience of being socially dead—and that in being socially dead he has become necessary to animate the world that excludes him—he now has the opportunity to see the world for what it truly is. This is the promise of Afropessimism: that once you stop trying to not be Black, what you gain is nothing but the most encompassing vantage point onto the world—the position of the one excluded constitutively from it. The Afropessimist obtains nothing other than the view from nowhere.

If diagnosing the intransigence of the world would prohibit the Afropessimist from penning autobiography in the Black activist tradition, it nevertheless offers a substitute for activist practice in the form of theoretical production. In the impossibility of objective change, the Afropessimist vaunts, and valorizes, subjective transformation. You cannot not be a slave, but there is a self singular to withhold when you recognize just how much the world needs you to be one. The impossibility of Black power becomes, involuntarily and painfully, the condition of a panoramic Black knowledge. What remains in the wake of the death of the Black autobiographical subject is not the birth of a new one. Rather, it provides a singular occasion to view the production of social and political life from the perspective of those on whom it leans—in practice as in theory— to prop itself up.

So, at least, the story goes. If, as Wilderson puts it, Afropessimism is “more of a meta- theory than a theory,” the movement between autobiography and theory that organizes the composition of Wilderson’s Afropessimism is metanarrative. Rather than a tale of social progress, Afropessimism offers its reader a metanarrative of secular conversion, of Frank the narrator becoming Wilderson, the Afropessimist theorist, and what it has meant for him to have done so. What Wilderson does not mention, or offer as an occasion for theory, is the fact that his theory is no simple practice of thought. Like critical theory itself, it is rather an institutional formation that, in order to exist outside of the temporalities of revolutionary politics—waxing, waning, surging, suppressing—has found refuge and reproducibility, to a limited but meaningful degree, in universities.

This may appear as a trivial nit to pick, but it matters: universities are concrete locations within the world that Afropessimism claims to theorize from the outside. They are central sites, that is, in the production of the view from nowhere. Afropessimism hints at this centrality but does not theorize it, save as background details to the interpersonal dramas that the book casually inflates to world-historical proportions.5Somewhat richer analytic accounts of the university, I should note, can be found in Wilderson’s previous memoir, Incognegro.

 

The Facts of Life

Indeed, one of the reasons that Wilderson cannot plot his individual life as a tale of individual or social progress has to do with the ways in which the sociological facts of his life have been unlike those of the overwhelming majority of Black Americans. His life fails to fit in this narrative structure less because of the fact of antiBlackness, but because of his coming of age in a mansion in the Kenwood neighborhood of Minnesota. Rags to riches, as well as several other narrative conceits, are unavailable to Wilderson from the beginning.

That he perceives the condition of Blackness as unshifting makes sense for someone for whom academic work is the family business. With both of his parents boasting doctorates, Wilderson is a second-generation PhD. His father, a professor, practicing psychologist, and academic administrator, chaired the committee that developed the proposal for a Department of Afro-American Studies at the University of Minnesota in 1969. Wilderson the Younger aided in the development of, and now chairs, the Department of African American Studies at the University of California, Irvine.

That Wilderson perceives the condition of Blackness as unshifting makes sense for someone for whom academic work is the family business.

Wilderson tends either to leave the fact of his class status unremarked upon or to treat it as an exemplar of that which prevents him from an encounter with the truth of his Blackness, with what he really is. Class, in this way, gets scaled down into a feature of individual psychology, rather than a structural feature of the social world. When Frank (a name I will use to refer to the book’s autobiographical voicing, as opposed to Wilderson, the theorist in reflection), recently suspended from Dartmouth, fears that a vindictive white neighbor is poisoning him and his partner Stella, he is able to get priority access to see a medical specialist by dropping his father’s name and position within the university. Having been initially rebuffed, Wilderson reports, Frank and Stella “were seen within the week.”

Frank here is not rich—he is driving a cab part-time and on general assistance—but he nevertheless has a specific class relationship to healthcare that structures this episode. His class status enables him to leverage the web of professional obligations that extend to him and to Stella. That structure shortens the distance between them and the kind of life-preserving care to which most others—Black and nonBlack—have no easy access. The class-abridged distance is access, also, to the means of knowledge production: Frank is able to obtain expert affirmation that his and Stella’s suspicions appear to be true.

Frank and Stella are not treated with kindness or respect by Dr. Zhou, the Chinese physician who examines them, but her objectifying approach to him and Stella is important for the budding Afropessimist. After all, it verifies two theories at once: Dr. Zhou’s authority affirms that Frank and Stella’s symptoms appear to have been caused by direct exposure to radioactive materials. Dr. Zhou’s demeanor in delivering this diagnosis, along with her disbelief that someone would be poisoning them, provides verification that she does not inhabit the same world of violence that Black people do.

Dr. Zhou not only appears to provide corroborative authority on antiBlackness; she seems to offer herself as one of its symptoms. But without Wilderson’s class status in its specificity, we never get to see Dr. Zhou. We never get to see the forces that provide independent verification that Frank and Stella are engaged in something truer than wild speculation. Without the university’s organization of Wilderson’s class status, there is no scientific authority to provide the institutional pressure necessary to crystallize experience as the stuff of theory.

But if Dr. Zhou thinks that Frank and Stella are lying, it seems to be because she assumes that they have been exposed to radiation at work, and are protecting their employer, whether out of loyalty or fear of retaliation. This might seem reasonable given the general precarity of Black workers, their history of facing disproportionate levels of radiation in workplaces that handle radioactive materials, and given the large-scale residential segregation of Minneapolis (which would make having a vindictive white neighbor less likely). But Stella takes exception to the doctor’s suggestion that she is lying, and when Frank attempts to deescalate the encounter, Stella accuses him of turning on her to manage his father’s reputation. “[Stella] had put her finger on the pulse of a desire to be special that beat inside my heart. In my unconscious I wanted to latch on to an element of Whiteness, or Humanness (since Dr. Zhou wasn’t White), that would set me apart from other Blacks.”

Were Frank a poor or working class Black person, Dr. Zhou’s rationale would make sense. But the sense that it makes is the problem. Wilderson would likely be loath to put it so plainly, but the logic here is clear. It is because Wilderson belongs to the professional-managerial class that his experience becomes available to affirm that antiBlackness structures Black life regardless of class. That it can be deployed to cruel, gratuitous, and potentially lethal extent by Frank and Stella’s radiation-poisoning white neighbor Josephine as by the police is for Wilderson’s purposes a case in point.

The point? That when you’re Black, your class status does nothing to undo your subjection to antiBlack violence. In fact, it is Dr. Zhou’s rationale that is the problem—she assumes that there has to be a reason beyond your Blackness that explains the violence directed at you. It must be your precarious location in the workplace; it must be the ultimately impersonal intersection of class and race.

 

Centrifugal Force

Wilderson’s class status is for this reason essential to the Afropessimist argument. It allows him to perceive the course of his own life as a test case of sorts, where his distance from the socioeconomic conditions that structure life for the great majority of other Black folks allows variables other than Blackness to be controlled for. For that reason, in fact, one might argue that he perceives himself as more representative of the objective truth of Blackness than the Black poor and working class, precisely because his relative economic privilege vis-à-vis other Black folks allows violence to be visible without the distractions of structural socioeconomic disadvantage. These disadvantages are conceived as distractions because, insofar as they describe forces that oppress Black and nonBlack people alike, they make it more difficult to perceive what Wilderson believes to be singularly true—that antiBlackness describes a historical formation that distinguishes Black people from all others. And because of that, Wilderson’s unspoken gambit is that his class status operates as does a centrifuge: using a class-privileged Black subject as a test case allows us to separate out with certainty what antiBlackness is and is not.

So, while Frank’s class status offered a portal through which he could access objective verification of violence that poor and working class Black folks could not, that matter is forgotten here. Instead, his class position is treated as a simple and transparent psychic symptom of disavowal. Class appears as the subjective expression of his self-negating desire to distinguish the self from other Black people.

Your father’s position or prestige are no more the keys to a sanctuary than the position and prestige of someone who is Black and orphaned, you are faced with two choices: stare unflinchingly at the abyss as it stares unflinchingly at you, or take it out on the Black person near you who won’t leave you to your fantasy of being truly alive.6Frank B. Wilderson III, Afropessimism (New York: Liveright, 2020), 100.

Wilderson rarely suggests that Black folks possess any agency, but the class-privileged Black subject is endowed with an agency of a certain kind in the ultimatum: either accept that class difference makes no difference to the violence that makes you Black, or else perpetuate antiBlack violence yourself.

I’m focusing on this scene at some length here, I know. My reason for doing so is that it helps to reveal what’s at stake in the organization of the book itself. The movement of concrete to abstract, and of autobiography to theory, is organized so as to disappear any class-related specificity from the book’s overall understanding of Blackness, even as that class-related specificity organizes the entire itinerary of the book. When Wilderson gets suspended from college for activism, he does not appear concerned, as first generation students might, that he has torpedoed his and his family’s best chance at upward mobility. When he is driving a cab and dodging the FBI, it is on the cusp of a return to Dartmouth.

Wilderson’s unspoken gambit is that his class status operates as does a centrifuge: using a class-privileged Black subject as a test case allows us to separate out with certainty what antiBlackness is and is not.

When working as a stockbroker wrecks his health, he works at an art center for a while before he is off to do a Masters at Columbia. After a long political adventure with the ANC in South Africa gets him branded a threat to national security, he begins a trek that lands him at Berkeley for a Ph.D. What manifests as an itinerary of individualized accumulation of institutional and political distinction is offered to readers of Afropessimism as the itinerary of a slave. Not someone wrestling with the stubborn force of the material and discursive legacy of slavery and its disavowal by the modern world. A slave.

 

The Scale of the Self

Afropessimism trains its reader in the leaps and bounds of faith necessary for this notion to be entertained. Though Wilderson sheds considerable ink critiquing nonBlacks for analogizing their condition to Black folks, his own understanding of his Blackness gets established through analogy, too. Early on in the book, a young Frank is with his grandmother. They are watching the rebellions in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Their conversation reads as if a dress rehearsal for Afropessimist philosophy.

When, prompted by the billowing smoke and the scenes of looting, young Frank asks Grandmother Jules, “Why are we mad?” The reader is not prompted to question the integrity of the “we” that extends from the mansion in Kenwood—the well-heeled Minneapolis neighborhood that the Wildersons are integrating—to the unspecified Black postindustrial ghetto that “could have been anywhere and everywhere.”7Wilderson, Afropessimism, 39. Kenwood is nowhere on that map, but it’s a nowhere that extends, by way of a gaze accompanying the presumption of shared affect, to a Black anywhere and everywhere.

The presumption of shared feeling does the work of analogy without calling attention to it. When young Frank’s grandmother shouts “Go ahead, son!” at a man depicted on television as a looter, it doesn’t strike the budding Afropessimist as theoretically significant that the looter can neither hear nor speak back. The gap between Frank and Grandmother Jules on one side, and the looter on the other, gets bridged through affective projection, not a solidaristic expression among equals.

For Wilderson, the defining features of the violence foundational to modern slavery (and therefore antiBlackness) are its gratuitousness, its freedom from having to serve any rational purpose, and, above all, its personal nature. (I’ll elaborate on this final point below.) Such a theory of violence makes for a situation where a reader who is left skeptical about the conclusions Wilderson draws as a narrator or theorist is encouraged to see herself as sort of like Dr. Zhou—as someone unwilling or unable to face that nonsensical violence is precisely what makes Blackness.

To insist that antiBlack violence make sense would be to impose onto it an ahistorical rationality. It would force antiBlack violence to be recognizable within the norms of violence that nonBlacks face. So, while there are moments when I questioned whether there might have been other plausible interpretations of many of the book’s pivotal scenes, part of the thrust, it would seem, is to challenge its reader to suspend disbelief. Gratuitous violence doesn’t make sense. That’s the point.

It’s a hell of a rhetorical mechanism, and one of the reasons why I advocate for reading Afropessimism with a certain degree of care. Any theoretical formation with a self-defense mechanism that refashions those that disagree with it into a symptom of the problem it is diagnosing has most likely crossed the line from theory into theology. Like Marxists who reflexively label any criticism as petty bourgeois, or Lacanians anxious to read any pushback as the outcome of unconscious repression, there is no way to test it except on the terms that it has itself provided.

At times it seems like Wilderson’s reading of the slave relation as a personal one turns the self into an upscaling mechanism. If second wave feminists insisted that the personal was political, Wilderson’s interpretive practice suggests that the personal is always already peculiar-institutional. It provides a means of refashioning one-on-one dynamics and interactions such that they become immediately available for generalization.

Wilderson’s descriptions of the concrete seem overwhelmed by an apparent demand to represent people, in the first instance, on the model of archetypes. It is not simply that nonBlack people are always invested in the position of the master in some hazy or general way. Wilderson’s narrations indicate that nonBlack people are invested in the personal character of that relationship in such a way that makes him their slave, in particular.

The Disappearing State

This analytic practice of turning social relations between Black and nonBlack persons, formal and informal, into one organized in the first instance by the slave-master dualism has serious implications for Wilderson’s ability to assess complex relationships. In the art center, his co-worker Sameer, an immigrant from Palestine who seems to share with Frank an interest in revolutionary internationalist politics, is grieving. Sameer has just received news of the death of his cousin who, in a tragic accident, was trying to craft a bomb in Ramallah. As Sameer is relating his grief, he shares stories with Frank about life under settler occupation. Yet the account hinges on Sameer’s comment that, for the Palestinian under occupation confronted with Israeli troops, “shame and humiliation runs even deeper if the Israeli soldier is an Ethiopian Jew.”

Wilderson is quick to dispense those questions of the complex and contradictory imbrications of racialization, religion, and nation. He instead makes Sameer’s expression of grief into one not only about Blackness, but about a Blackness that Wilderson, in spite of his geopolitical location, has an obvious and transparent claim to immediate understanding. That Sameer and Frank stand in for the possibility—now, more specifically, the impossibility—of Palestinian-Black solidarity simply goes without saying.

Details of actual coalition building needn’t be fussed with. These proportions, and the idea that they can be generalized, must be treated as obvious or unspoken in order to offer the encounter its dramatic framing. With Sameer’s words, Wilderson explains, “The earth gave way. The thought that my place in the unconscious of Palestinians fighting for their freedom was the same dishonorable place I occupied in the minds of Whites in America and Israel chilled me.”8Ibid., 11-12.

The assumed personality of the slave relation offers a hair-trigger impulse to abstraction and analogy. With stunning quickness, it turns a state soldier into a slave and a suffering comrade into a theoretical occasion. As selves scale across space and time, they scale up in proportion: Sameer, in his grief, appears to offer unyielding access to a Palestinian collective unconscious that is already fixated on putting the slave in his place.

As it scales, the Afropessimist practice of abstraction has to erase, or ignore, a lot of complicating details. The reader is not invited to consider the possibility that Sameer might have meant something quite different, that it might not make sense to analogize the racial organization in a different geopolitical context, or the significance of the fact that a Black person might participate in the consolidation of state power as anything other than its unwilling instrument. The Ethiopian soldier’s gun, for instance, is explained away in a dependent clause.

But those who have embraced Afro-pessimism will likely not be swayed by anything I have said above. In the final instance, the Afropessimist imaginary is fueled by a confidence toward which it gestures but rarely states explicitly. The idea is that the virtue of Afropessimism consists in the fact that it does something important for Black people, that it allows Black people to speak deeply repressed truths about the social world, truths that make their nonBlack enemies and allies feel profoundly unsafe.

My first response to this repressive hypo- thesis would of course be, “which Black people?” The second would be about the nature of the relationship between speech and action envisioned here. While many who embrace Afropessimist ideas imagine that doing so will animate a radical politics that can live beyond a kind of collective world-historical recognition of antiBlackness, that is not a confidence shared by its principal theorist. He is consistently vague: “[Afropessimism] makes us worthy of our suffering.” Or “Afropessimism is Black people at their best. . . [It] gives us the freedom to say out loud what we would other- wise whisper or deny: that no Blacks are in the world, but, by the same token, there is no world without Blacks.”9Ibid., 40.

Or, the virtue of the theory exists in the pleasure of scaling itself. Speaking of the relief of being in an all-Black group at a multiracial conference, Wilderson writes,

I was able to see and feel how comforting it was for a room full of Black people to move between the spectacle of police violence, to the banality of microaggressions at work and in the classroom, to the experiences of chattel slavery as if the time and intensity of all three were the same.10Ibid., 205.

Extending the feel-good experience of this proto-Afropessimist scene of affirmation, for Wilderson, is the fact that no one asks any questions, inserts any uncertainty, or demands any specificity when group members talk about the contemporariness of chattel slavery. “Folks cried and laughed and hugged each other and called out loud for the end of the world. No one poured cold water on this by asking, What does that mean—the end of the world?”11Ibid., 205.

But when the all-Black group’s breakout session ends, they are at an impasse, because they are supposed to talk with their nonBlack “allies” about what happened. Eventually one member of the group suggests what will become their ultimate course of action: “We would go back in and refuse to speak with them. Not a protest, just a silent acknowledgement of the fact that we would not corrupt what we experienced with their demand for articulation between their grammar of suffering and ours.”12Ibid., 206.

Wilderson offers little insight into the process that led to this decision, partly because the point of the scene is to teach us to read silence in the Afropessimist register. Just as young Frank viewed Grandmother Jules laughing and yelling at the television, the reader is led, by the overwhelming sense of joy and relief in the scene, to read the absence of disagreement as the presence of assent. Silence, here, appears to affirm the criticality of Afropessimism.

 

Theory—Critique—Theory

In the book’s final pages, Frank tells a student who is visiting his office that “the thing that prevented most students from getting their heads around Afropessimism was the fact that it described a structural problem but offered no structural solution to that problem.”13Ibid., 331. My read is different. It is not that Afropessimism offers no solution so much as it substitutes itself for one. It offers knowledge itself as the end, as a good that resides in the place that other theories would put the exhortation to practice—and in practice, to test the theory.

This is something different than saying that, when it comes to Afropessimism’s political imaginary, there’s no there there. My point is that in the end, Afropessimism is a view from somewhere, and that somewhere is, perhaps all too obviously, the university. The place where all roads in Afropessimism ultimately lead, that place where theorizing is a valued mode of practice in and of itself, and where it does not need to be justified on any other terms. The modern university does not only enable the practice of diagnosing problems with no solutions to hand, and to develop critiques that do not open immediately onto strategies of redress; it enshrines the right to do so and valorizes the subject that does. Afropessimism claims to offer no sanctuary while its practitioner is in fact modeled on the privileged subject of Enlightenment humanism, which sought to liberate knowing from being judged by the actions it did or did not enable.

That same subject valorized the idea that its will to scientific reasoning was based on objective reasoning, or what the philosopher Thomas Nagel called “the view from nowhere,” characteristic of the fetishized position for producing “objective” knowledge.14Thomas Nagel, The View from Nowhere (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989). The aspiration toward objectivity is of course useful. But so too is attending to the politics of what it takes to produce and claim the standpoint of objectivity.

The student in Frank’s office at the end of the book is a young Black woman. Afropessimism is a book that relies on Black women—from Grandmother Jules to Stella and others—to teach Frank the lessons that he synthesizes into the theory of Afropessimism. They offer him the parts that he abstracts into a whole. They then disappear, unless they are Frank’s mother—or, in the case of Saidiya Hartman, they appear in citations—because this is a book in which the criteria governing the fact and duration of a person’s appearance seems to be the probative value they provide to the theory.

This student, though, is being presented with Afropessimism as a whole, and she is struggling, to the point of tears. She has realized her white mother is the master of her father and her, and that the same is the case of her boyfriend, who is Asian American. Frank comforts her, relaying stories about the psychotic episode he underwent in the course of his Afropessimist conversion.

Frank realizes that it has been “too painful to discuss social death and Black suffering in a multiracial classroom.” He decides that to take the focus off of “us,” he must turn the spotlight on “them”—nonBlacks—and focus on their world-making reliance on antiBlackness. But the student is protective and concerned. “The non-Black students will complain,” she tells Frank, “and the administration will fire you.”

We’ve been told just a few pages before this that Frank is now a tenured professor. It would be easy for him to reassure this student that he has institutional protections that make it exceedingly difficult for him to lose his job, especially resulting from a student complaint. But that would also reveal that there is a structural and hierarchical difference between Frank and this student (as well as between Frank and the other students in class) that is irreducible to antiBlackness, and that is where Wilderson wants us to focus.

Instead, he invites a speculative scenario, one that overstates his vulnerability. “‘Would admin fire a nonBlack professor if the Black Student Union complained?’ I asked. She shook her head. ‘Then to hell with the administration. You’re risking your sanity to stay with me for two more weeks. The least I can do is risk my job.’”15Wilderson, Afropessimism, 333.

The certainty that Afropessimism animates something solidaristic between Black folks relies on this sort of quaint story, which comes across as sweet so long as you don’t deal with the fact that it is, to put it charitably, misleading. The lie seems gratuitous. Wouldn’t it put the student’s concerns to rest to know that in shifting the class focus in order to accommodate her doesn’t mean that other students in the future might not experience these ideas, and this professor, that she clearly values?

But this is the theory in practice, so let us take seriously what Wilderson is demonstrating here. Afropessimism theorizes a modern world predicated on a structure that produces the slave’s unceasing suffering. The acknowledgement of this fact entails a conversion experience in which the Black person recognizes herself as a slave. The painful reckoning this creates in the Black subject confronting her captivity appears to find its only reprieve in the acknowledgement of other Black people and the critique of nonBlack people in certain contexts.

The Afropessimist finds the theory confirmed in the discomfort and resistance it appears to produce when its imagined antagonists are forced to confront it. But because, as the theory acknowledges, that critique—issued as it is from the position of the slave—cannot undo the fact of Black suffering, the theory finds itself affirmed. Theory—Critique—Theory: it’s the circuit through which Afropessimism renews itself. By design, this circuit crops out any reflection on the relation to professional-managerial class formation that sets it into motion.

But at the risk of inflating a minor detail—it takes up three pages in a book of 339—I want to close by returning to the office-hour accord between Frank and the student. There is a whole nonverbal grammar that Wilderson sees fit to describe in his exchange with the student. Sobs open onto laughs, laughs become grins, and the exchange shifts through different registers of intimacy that seem unbounded from the norms of the student-teacher relation. Frank is confessional, warm, self-effacing, and jokey. There’s a “we” in this office. Its sense of “we” comes from the projection of a resistant and dangerous “they” elsewhere—in the student’s family as in the classroom.

But when the student acts in a comradely way toward the professor, extending solidarity in the form of concern about his economic wellbeing, Frank makes a decision that he does not explicitly narrate as one. He can tell the student what he’s already told his reader—that his job is protected by tenure. Or he can lie, by omission and by misdirection, which will preserve the sense that theirs is a solidarity among slaves. The problem with telling the truth here is that there is no easy way to reconcile it with the solidarity that he is building with the student. Not only would it complicate the sense of certainty that he is planning to direct at the nonBlack students—based on the presumption that they are his masters—but it would reveal that between the student and Frank, there is a hierarchy that the book has offered no way of analyzing.

The student “understood critical theory at levels exemplary of the most advanced graduate student, and she was still a senior in college.”16Ibid., 331. The student, presented as a budding Afropessimist who, in her suffering, occasions a change in his approach to teaching, also represents the institutional reproduction of Afropessimism. Compliments notwithstanding, Frank seems more interested in keeping her around than taking her seriously as a thinker, or as a potential comrade. He doesn’t seem to feel an obligation to inform her that the structural mechanism that enables him to critique nonBlacks in a way that makes them uncomfortable is the same one that has also protected men like him from the consequences of harming women like her. He relates to her as if her consent is valued—“So I made her a deal,” he says—even as he misinforms her.

There is no need to scale up here, at least not synecdochally, as is Wilderson’s tendency throughout the book. I am not claiming that this scene represents some ineffable essence of what Afropessimism really is. My point is that it contains one example among several that illustrates what needs to disappear, to be forgotten, assumed, overlooked, or silenced, in order for its sense of Black solidarity to appear. It’s a scene where an analogy—that the student’s relation to Blackness is the same as Frank’s—is molded into concretion as critique and intimacy. It is on this manner of concretion that the Afropessimist abstract is predicated. It is a fashioning of the “we.”

That “we,” read for its disappearing acts, elisions, and silences, helps us to speculate around why it seems so difficult for kihana miraya ross to connect the Afropessimist intervention she makes into any concrete demands of the current moment. The Afropessimist disavowal of the impact of class in the production of racism means that it has to ignore or de-emphasize the ways that the structural interplay between race and class shapes the overall geographies of policing. George Floyd did not grow up in the same section of Minneapolis that Frank Wilderson did, and that fact makes neither of them less Black.

The Afropessimist injunction would be to scale up. Doing so would generalize the function of policing such that it effectively turns all nonBlack people into police and refashion the distinction as one that obtains “between all of them and all of us.” Us against the world. Doing so might make for stunning and compelling critique of the kind we find in Afropessimism, which, gorgeously written as it is, makes it an enjoyable text with which to disagree. But the flattening-out effect that comes from the theorization of a generalized antiBlack everywhere also shows us the real limits of the view from nowhere. Implicitly, the call to abolish policing acknowledges that if it is to be effective, it must be radical, self-critical, solidaristic, and accountable. To do so, Black politics has to start somewhere.

  1. kihana miraya ross, “Call It What It Is: Anti-Blackness,” New York Times, June 4, 2020.
  2. Frank B. Wilderson, III, Incognegro: A Memoir of Exile and Apartheid (Boston: South End Press, 2008); Frank B. Wilderson, III, Red, White, and Black: Cinema and the Structure of U.S. Antagonisms (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010).
  3. Frank B. Wilderson, III, “Gramsci’s Black Marx: Whither the Slave in Civil Society?” Social Identities 9, no. 2 (2003): 225-40; Saidiya V. Hartman and Frank B. Wilderson, III. “The Position of the Unthought.” Qui Parle 13, no. 2 (2003): 183-201.
  4. Jared Sexton, “Ante-Anti-Blackness: Afterthoughts,” Lateral 1 (2012).
  5. Somewhat richer analytic accounts of the university, I should note, can be found in Wilderson’s previous memoir, Incognegro.
  6. Frank B. Wilderson III, Afropessimism (New York: Liveright, 2020), 100.
  7. Wilderson, Afropessimism, 39.
  8. Ibid., 11-12.
  9. Ibid., 40.
  10. Ibid., 205.
  11. Ibid., 205.
  12. Ibid., 206.
  13. Ibid., 331.
  14. Thomas Nagel, The View from Nowhere (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989).
  15. Wilderson, Afropessimism, 333.
  16. Ibid., 331.
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