Conversations with Afropessimism* – Kevin Clarke

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(Provisionally Titled*; Original Title Withheld*) 


By Kevin Clarke 


Scholars and academics in sociology and the humanities have for years wrestled with the question of whether black agency is nothing more than an oxymoron. Recently a new approach in black philosophy has taken up this question only to provide an unflinchingly pessimistic answer in response. The approach which goes by the moniker of ‘afropessimism’ refers to a group of structural theorists who adopt a paradigmatic analysis that theorizes the Black positionality as always already conditioned by ‘social death.’ Their analysis thus concludes that dispossession cannot always be theorized as an experiential concern but rather must be theorized as a condition of black existence. The provocative conclusions of afropessimism have ensnared and anchored the theoretical imaginary of today’s scholarship on blackness. This paper will scrutinize the validity of the afropessimist conclusion that anti-blackness ontologically anchors civil society. Primarily, afropessimism will be criticized for its adoption of an underlying latent Hegelianism that not only misappropriates the role of ontology in relation to politics, but that also ignores post-humanist formulations of politics. After outlining the implications of this problem, this paper will briefly present an alternative trajectory to re-calibrate black politics while heeding the cautions, frustrations, and brilliance of afropessimism. I must be clear; the aim of this critique is not to entirely dispense with the conceptual frameworks or vocabularies of afro-pessimism altogether, as this would ignore a myriad of relevant lessons, important upper limitations, and exigent correctives for any rigorous conversation on race or blackness.


In the context of antiracism, we can locate a distinct shift across disciplines in the last few decades away from the previous understanding of race as being biologically determined toward a conception that figures race as a function of social interpretations. Unfortunately, despite this departure from biological determinism and the important conceptual developments in sociology, theorists have simply arrived back into a framework of analysis that mystifies rather than clarifies the nature of racial dispossession in North America (possibly even globally). At issue here is the way in which sociology theorizes with a set of hidden, multicultural precepts concerning the question of agency. Their work takes for granted the answer to the question: what constitutes human agency? Instead, their intellectual labor begins with the precept that all subjects exist in the first instance as fully capable and coherent agents. This assumption that all humans possess a fullness or a coherency of capacity can be referred to as a subject’s corporeal capacity. As a corrective to this agent-centric approach, theorists within the humanities in the last decade have demanded a theorization that instead adopts a structural reading of political events. Rather than argue that racial violence and anti-black dispossession are functions of specific agents that can be isolated as causes, a structural analysis locates the cause at the level of the system or the matrix of power itself. For black structural theorists (examples include: black Marxism, black anarchism, afropessimism, feminist race theory, afra-realism, etc), the entire matrix of the political economy must be systemically implicated as a dimension of racial violence alongside the agents embedded in that system.

Simply adopting a structural reading of suffering does not keep one safe from being implicated in the perpetuation of dispossession. Although a system-wide consciousness is important to understanding the racialization of bodies and subjects in general, according to the afro-pessimist critique, the narrative that becomes legitimized is still nonetheless foundational to the performative violence that is continually enacted on the paradigms of Redness and Blackness in North America. This type of criticism extends beyond the structural analysis of the political economy by interrogating the libidinal economy that undergirds it. The phrase ‘libidinal economy’ for afro-pessimists refers to “the economy, or distribution and arrangement, of desire and identification (their condensation and displacement), and the complex relationship between sexuality and the unconscious” (7). Under paradigmatic analysis, the libidinal economy is regarded as just “as ‘objective’ as political economy” (7). This condition of objectivity allows theorists to rigorously interrogate the assumptive logics and paradigms that underlie political capacity and political desire altogether. The meta-logics that pervade civil society are thus analyzed as a set of semiotic investments.

At the forefront of this scholarship is the cultural critic Frank Wilderson. His writing has attained wide-scale notoriety for its demand for an ‘unflinching paradigmatic analysis’ of the libidinal economy. Under Wilderson’s framework there is a permanent and unfixable gap between Blackness and Whiteness. His version of afropessimism argues that any Humanist framework is grossly inadequate and parasitic on Blackness at the level of the libidinal economy. In operational terms, the promise of racial progress is nothing more than a passionate dream operating as a parasitic nightmare. Specifically, the problem lies in the underlying logic of humanism which relies on an “implicit rhetorical consensus” that all subject-positions possess the same capacity for subjecthood as an essential condition of their being (54). Today’s socio-political imaginary is oversaturated by this exact Humanist consensus because of its collective reliance on: either, a schema of the worker, demanding labor equality and the democratization of the means of production, or, a schema of the egoic subject, grasping or wielding corporeal capacity to fend off physical and material suffering.

Even the latest installment of multi-cultural, humanist discourse mystifies rather than clarifies the suffering and violence that accumulates specifically to Blackness and Redness. Despite the burning passion and hysteric intentions of civil society’s dream to one day redeem Whiteness from slavery and/or compensate natives for the obliteration afforded to them by colonial genocide, the United States as an ethical formation will never succeed in the task to, as Wilderson so simply puts it, to “Give Turtle Island back to the ‘Savage.’ [and/or] Give life itself back to the Slave” (2). In other words, despite all civil society’s attention to solidarity, collaboration, and unity, the contemporary narrative adopts a grammar of suffering that is not only speechless to express the truth of anti-black dispossession and terror, but is also parasitic on that very arrangement. By ‘grammar of suffering,’ Wilderson references the field of semiotics and linguistics. Grammar in these disciplines refers to the codes and protocols that enable and/or limit the expression of meaning; they are the unspoken rules that govern how and if one can convey meaning. Likewise, Wilderson is interrogating the unspoken rules that restrict one’s ability to convey the meaning of suffering and dispossession within the libidinal, and by extension political, economies. The grammar of these domains can be objectively interrogated to disclose their underlying premises in regards to suffering.

Under the Afropessimist framework, the condition of anti-black dispossession can only be understood through the lens of political ontology by what Wilderson calls an ‘unflinching paradigmatic analysis.’ Paradigm is conceptually equivalent to the sociology term subject-position or positionality. It’s a reference to the generic characteristics or, vague categories of power, that sentience can occupy. Ontology refers to the study of being and to the study of what essentially is a thing’s nature. Put more simply, it asks: what constitutes a thing of which without it, the thing could no longer be said to be that identical thing?; What is a thing’s essence? Furthermore, the framework’s emphasis on political ontology refers to a type of analysis that purely provides an assessment using the essentials of a political paradigm. For example, a paradigmatic analysis of political ontology would ask the question of constituents: what constitutes a particular paradigm? What makes that paradigm that paradigm? In the context of the positionality of the Black, the constitutive question would ask: What makes Black, Black? Or, it’s ontological equivalent: What makes White, White? The capitalization of Slave is used to designate position or paradigm under the lens of political ontology. In this case, it is synonymous with the essence of Slaveness, which is furthermore indistinguishable from the political essence of Blackness.

For Wilderson, the constitutive question when applied to the structural positionalities of North America provides him with the conclusion that the structure of U.S. antagonisms can be triangulated between the positions of Red, White, and Black. In other words, the constitutive question reveals the existence of an irreconcilable and structural gap: the antagonism between the position of the Slave (Blackness, Anti-Human), the Savage (Redness, Half-Human), and the Master (Whiteness, Human). The word antagonism refers to an irreconcilable difference between positions that cannot be resolved through any series of events. In a short article criticizing Antonio Gramsci, Wilderson elaborates this as an analysis that “dismisses any kind of dialectical optimism for a future synthesis” (2002, pg.3). Following Frantz Fanon, this politics is a war of positions that can only entail the obliteration of one of the warring entities; there’s no possibility for (re)conciliatory unity. The concept of antagonism or antagonistic identity formation should be contrasted with the “rubric of conflict” (55). For example, the relation between the hegemonic and the subaltern (political subject of counter-hegemony) can be classified as a conflictual relationship because, it’s predicated on the conflict of a subject subverting, transgressing, or violating the hegemony of law. In other words, we can make sense of this situation according to particular rules of civil society; it’s a relationality of contingency with respect to how one suffers.

In assembling these concepts together, Wilderson distills the entire set of hegemonic conflicts down to the structural positionality of White. He argues that the position of White in the United States encompasses the whole range of intra-human conflicts and even intra-settler conflicts. For him, the White positionality is synonymous with the essence of civil society and with the essence of what it means to be Human simultaneously. Humanism is ultimately able to house a number of conflicts within itself –within its terrain, or matrix.  Civil society secures this ‘material base’ or ‘social fabric’ off of which all other conflicts between Human contemporaries can then take place upon. These conflictual relations are ‘contingent situations’ or ‘events of contingency.’ The concept of contingency can be traced to that of Gramsci, who theorized that society struggled according to the play between hegemonic and counter-hegemonic forces. The hegemonic force is able to make and officiate specific rules governing a given society. When a subject breaches or violates the hegemony of law, then that subject can be sanctioned for violence; or, put simply, the encounter relies on exchanging the choice of transgression for the expectation of suffering. Thus, a conflictual rubric contains an adequate grammar of suffering to explain any type of violence that is contingent on one’s transgression.

The ontological fight over what criteria are acceptable for one to be recognized and integrated into civil society as fully human, has a historical legacy that for some subject-positions directly mirrors how and when they were structurally dispossessed. For Wilderson a subject-position that is antagonistically dispossessed can only be explained by the analytic of gratuitous violence. This suturing of history to political ontology for Blackness is not a similarity of correlation, but rather one and the same product of Whiteness. Rather than simply denoting a similarity between two seemingly distinct domains of history and ontology, the Afro-pessimists argue that we are speaking of identical entities shaped out of absolute causation, raw condition, or timeless facticity. To explain this as a set of isolated causes would be inadequate, because when the cause and the effect are the same, the meaning of causality loses its explanatory power or analytical value. They are the same in the sense that, to quote Wilderson, re-quoting Frantz Fanon, the “cause is the consequence; you are rich because you are white, you are white because you are rich” (78). To identify this entity as a systemic force, dimension, or plane of violence that endlessly positions Black sentience, these theorists use the figuration of a ‘matrix’ to explain this dispossession. In other words, being violently dispossessed operates as an initial constituent of their being even prior to any subjective experience that fills-in the raw, epidermal rebar. The condition of being ‘fatally alive’ or ‘natally alienated’ regardless of experiential makeup marks the condition of social death. Gratuitous violence refers to this senseless terror suffered by a positionality consigned to social death. Unlike the Human subject’s commonsense or contingent grammar of suffering, the analytic of gratuitous violence abandons altogether the possibility of achieving narrative cohesion; it does not adopt a conclusion with any explanatory power or corporeal capacity to make sense of antagonistic dispossession. Under afropessimism, the dispossession and horror of anti-blackness can only be senseless when evaluated according to civil society’s official narrative.

The analytic of gratuitous violence fully eclipses the structural circumstances of the Black, while only half-positioning the subject of Redness. Due to the unique style of dispossession enacted and ongoing on native and indigenous peoples, the Savage positionality is regarded as half-positioned by gratuitous violence and half-positioned by contingent violence. Their access to the gratuitous violence analytic stems from the previous and ongoing genocide on Native-Americans that produces irreconcilable destruction of which there can never be repair, and never be redemption. Alternatively, the other half of the Savage position can be explained by a framework of contingency because the Natives still possess ties to land, kinship, and sovereignty from which they can generate enough rhetorical and material currency to be recognized as half-human, subaltern subjects via empathic identification.

Instead of possessing the “cartographic and temporal capacities” of the subaltern’s customs, traditions, and land, the Slave positionality is marked by absolute dereliction and utter emptiness (54-55). For Wilderson, determining an ontological essence for the Slave is an impossibility, because ontological analysis assumes that the corporeal, or subjective, capacity for social life and social activity exist in the first place. Put simply, Slaveness was essentially relegated to function not as a subject, but rather as a sentient, propertied object. As a species of property, the essence of the Slave can accumulate an indeterminate number of purposes depending on the whims of the Master. For this reason, Afropessimism defines the technologies of slavery, not as essentially exploitation, drudgery, or contingent violence, but rather as ‘accumulation and fungibility.’ By this they mean that the essence of the Slave constantly accumulates meaning from the Master, while the word ‘fungibility’ makes reference to how the Slave’s value can be easily and limitlessly commodified alongside other goods as an exchangeable piece of property or money. The non-ontological status of Slaveness/Blackness can be further articulated (or more properly ‘inarticulated,’ given the absence of articulation in the Gramscian sense) as the condition of complete, social death. Ultimately, the gap between Master and Slave is permanent and unbridgeable.

When scaled up to the level of society, the antagonistic gap provides the basis for the parasitic arrangement that gives birth to subjecthood. The incommensurate and anti-human status of the encounter with the Black object provides the backdrop from which White sociality registers itself as socially alive in the first place. The Black structurally becomes positioned as the anti-human threat from which the rest of Humanity (civil society) purchases coherency and, re-solidifies membership to the club. Humanity (social life itself) thereby understands itself as clearly and distinctly real by first demarcating what the reality of humanness is not. In this Hegelian sense, the interplay between ontological forces (being, social life, subject, freedom) and non-ontological forces (non-being, social death, sentient object, enslaved) takes place along the same antagonistic fault lines that triangulate the war between Red Savage, White Master, and Black Slave. This triangulation occurs between the two mutually exclusive zones of social life and social death.

One might notice the peculiarity of choosing the word triangulation to describe a coordination between two concepts. As a metaphor Wilderson adopts the figuration of a balance-scale that can freely measure corporeal capacity between two subjects but only with the Black sentient object as the fulcrum of that measurement. This is because Slaveness is a positionalitiy or subject-position that lacks the subjective capacity altogether. The encounter with the incoherency of the Black sentient object is the reflective surface on and by which all other permutations of humanism purchase their coherency. Instead, only White (including subaltern) and Red positionalities have the capacity to be in the world: Whiteness as permanently the apex of the life-world itself and Redness as perpetually oscillating between being in the world or, just being of the world. When this encounter is scaled-up to the level of civil society it becomes the anti-black fabric that makes it possible for civil society to formulate, strengthen, and even dialectically contest itself. This dialectical narrative, which is essential to the worker and egoic subject, is always in diametrical opposition to the site of absolute dereliction that is the positionality of Blackness (Fanon). An unflinching paradigmatic analysis reveals that the Black is never in the world, but rather, always-already a product of the world as an object freely (or gratuitously) accumulating the danger and social costs of what it takes to simply have a blackened epidermal rebar.


The totalizing theorization of Blackness as ‘embodied incapacity’ and as an anti-human foil out of which civil society grounds itself, is a hypothesis based on a conflation of the word ‘political’ and the word ‘politics.’ Followers of Wilderson mis-use the category of political ontology when their paradigmatic analyses………… 

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Wilderson, Frank III. 2010. – Red, White, and Black: Cinema and the Structure of U.S. Antagonisms

Wilderson, Frank B III. 2010. Speaking on a Panel on Literary Activism at the National Black Writers Conference. March 26, 2010. “Panel on Literary Activism” Transcribed from Online Source., begins at roughly 49:10 

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