I am reading a lot of very important things right now, parcing through the texts I collected this summer and steeping in their greatness again. Here are some excerpts from two essays that touch on representation... Frank B. Wilderson is a black writer and film theorist, teaching at UC Irvine. Saidiya Hartman is a black historian, teaching at Columbia; both work extensively in afro-pessimist thought-- a school of thought I, too, subscribe to/wrestle with.
these are conversations I so desperately wish to have in class, ideas that keep me quiet and restless during our classes.
The Position of the Unthought- Saidiya Hartman and Frank B. Wilderson:
S.V.H. - I think that gets at one of the fundamental ethical ques tions/problems/crises for the West: the status of difference and the status of the other. It's as though in order to come to any recogni tion of common humanity, the other must be assimilated, meaning in this case, utterly displaced and effaced: "Only if I can see myself in that position can I understand the crisis of that position." That is the logic of the moral and political discourses we see everyday - the need for the innocent black subject to be victimized by a racist state in order to see the racism of the racist state. You have to be exemplary in your goodness, as opposed to .. .
F.W. - [laughter] A nigga on the warpath!
S.V.H. - Exactly! For me it was those moments that were the most telling - the moments of the sympathetic ally, who in some ways is actually no more able to see the slave than the person who is exploiting him or her as their property. That is the work Rankin does and I think it suggests just how ubiquitous that kind of violence, in fact, is.
F.W - You've just thrown something into crisis, which is very much on the table today: the notion of allies. What you've said (and I'm so happy that someone has come along to say it!) is that the ally is not a stable category. There's a structural prohibition (rather than merely a willful refusal) against whites being the allies of blacks, due to this - to borrow from Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth again - "species" division between what it means to be a subject and what it means to be an object: a structural antago nism. But everything in the academy on race works off of the ques tion, "How do we help white allies?" Black academics assume that there is enough of a structural commonality between the black and the white (working class) position - their mantra being: "We are both exploited subjects" - for one to embark upon a political ped agogy that will somehow help whites become aware of this "commonality." White writers posit the presence of something they call "white skin privilege," and the possibility of "giving that up," as their gesture of being in solidarity with blacks. But what both ges tures disavow is that subjects just can't make common cause with objects. They can only become objects, say in the case of John Brown or Marilyn Buck, or further instantiate their subjectivity through modalities of violence (lynching and the prison industrial complex), or through modalities of empathy. In other words, the essential essence of the white/black relation is that of the master/slave - regardless of its historical or geographic specificity. And masters and slaves, even today, are never allies.
F.W. -"How do you go to the movies?" How does one, knowing what one knows, sit through anything? Because it seems like every film - if it is in any way going to communicate some type of empathy that the audience can walk away with - has to have black death as its precondition.
F.W. - Well, why does white supremacy seem to be so bound up in the visual?
S.V.H. - I think that visually, the threat of blackness is somehow heightened. Fanon's "Look! A Negro": that's the formulation, and within the racial classificatory schema that is how much of the work is done, especially in terms of the way racialization has operated: how it disposes of bodies, how it appropriates their products, and how it fixes them in a visual grid. I think those are the three ways I would explore that problem, as well as, again, this whole dimension of the empathic.
The Narcissitic Slave, Red, White, & Black: Cinema and the Structure of U.S. Antagonisms - Frank B. Wilderson
"Despite having ventured into the first unfortunate move—a need to communicate with other groups of people through the positing of, and anxiety over, Black coherence— Lott’s work does make brilliant interventions. I’m saying, however, that not only does the drive toward a presentation of a Black film canon show a desire to participate in the institutionality of cinema, but the work itself shows a desire to participate in the institutionality of academia. And “participation” is a register unavailable to slaves. Black film theory, as an intervention, would have a more destructive impact if it foregrounded the impossibility of a Black film, the impossibility of a Black film theory, the impossibility of a Black film theorist, and the impossibility of a Black person except, and this is key, under “cleansing” (Fanon) conditions of violence. Once real violence is coupled with representational “monstrosity” (Spillers’ notion of a Black embrace of absolute vulnerability, 2003: 229), then and only then is there a possibility for Blacks to move from the status of things to the status of...of what, we’ll just have to wait and see. "
This is a high-stakes interrogation because so much film theory (White, or, non-Black—Human—film theory) is in fee to Lacan and his underlying thesis on subjectivity and psychic liberation. It does not seek to disprove Lacan’s underlying theory of how the subject comes into subjectivity via alienation within the Imaginary and the Symbolic; nor does it seek to disprove his understanding of psychic stagnation (described as egoic monumentalization) as that condition from which the subject (and by extension, the socius) must be liberated. Rather than attempt to disprove Lacan’s (and, by extension non-Black film theory’s) evidence and assumptive logic I seek to show how, in aspiring to a paradigmatic explanation of relations, his assumptive logic mystifies rather than clarifies a paradigmatic explanation of relations, for it has a vivid account of the conflicts between genders, or, more broadly, between narcissistic contemporaries and contemporaries who have learned to live in a deconstructive relation to the ego—that is to say, it offers a reliable toolbox for rigorously examining intra-Human conflicts (and for proposing the aesthetic gestures, i.e., types of filmic practices, which either exacerbate [Hollywood films] or redress [counter-cinema] these conflicts) but it has no capacity to give a paradigmatic explanation of the structure of antagonisms between Blacks and Humans. I argue that the claims and conclusions which Lacanian psychoanalysis (and by extension non-Black film theory) makes regarding dispossession and suffering are (a) insufficient to the task of delineating Black dispossession and suffering, and (b) parasitic on that very Black dispossession and suffering for which it has no words.
As a psychoanalyst, Fanon does not dispute Lacan’s claim that suffering and freedom are produced and attained, respectively, in the realm of Symbolic; but this, for Fanon, is only half of the modality of existence. The other half of suffering and freedom is violence. By the time Fanon has woven the description of his patient’s condition (i.e., his own life as a Black doctor in France) into the prescription of a cure (his commitment to armed struggle in Algeria), he has extended the logic of disorder and death from the Symbolic into the Real.
Decolonization, which sets out to change the order of the world, is, obviously, a program of complete disorder...[I]t is the meeting of two forces, opposed to each other by their very nature...Their first encounter was marked by violence and their existence together...was carried on by dint of a great array of bayonets and cannons...[T]his narrow world, strewn with prohibitions, can only be called in question by absolute violence. (The Wretched of the Earth 36-37)
This is because the structural, or absolute, violence or what Loic Wacquant calls the “carceral continuum,” is not a Black experience but a condition of Black “life.” It remains constant, paradigmatically, despite changes in its “performance” over time—slave ship, Middle Passage, slave estate, Jim Crow, the ghetto, the prison industrial complex.vii There is an uncanny connection between Fanon’s absolute violence and Lacan’s Real. Thus, by extension, the grammar of suffering of the Black itself is on the level of the Real. In this emblematic passage, Fanon does for violence what Lacan does for alienation: namely, he removes the negative stigma such a term would otherwise incur in the hands of theorists and practitioners who seek coherence and stability. He also raises within Lacan’s schema of suffering and freedom a contradiction between the idea of universal un-raced contemporaries and two forces opposed to each other, whose first encounter and existence together is marked by violence. In short, he divides the world not between cured contemporaries and uncured contemporaries, but between contemporaries of all sorts and slaves. He lays the groundwork for a theory of antagonism over and above a theory of conflict.
Put another way: is full speech for the master full speech for the slave? What would it mean for a master to live in a deconstructive relation to his moi? Is “liberated master” an oxymoron or, worse yet, simply redundant? Through what agency (volition? will?) does a slave entify the signifier? Which is to ask, can there be such a thing as a narcissistic slave? Or, what is full speech for a slave? Lacan seems to take for granted the universal relevance of (1) the analytic encounter, (2) the centrality of signification, and (3) the possibility of “contemporaries.” But can a Blackened position take up these coordinates with merely a few culturally specific modifications, or is to blacken these coordinates precipitous of crises writ large?
I contend that the web of analogy cast between the subject of analysis and her “contemporaries,” in the process of full speech, is rent asunder by insertion of the Black position, who is less a site of subjectification and more a site of desubjectification—a “species” (Fanon; Hartman) of “absolute dereliction” (Fanon), a hybrid of “person and property” (Hartman), and a body that magnetizes bullets (Martinot and Sexton). I intend to scale upward (to the socius) the implications of Lacanian full speech to illustrate its place as a strategy which fortifies and extends the interlocutory life of civil society, and scale downward (to the body) the implications of Fanonian decolonization to illustrate the incommensurability between the Black flesh and the body of the analysand. Full speech is a strategy of psychic disorder, within Human limits, and decolonization is a strategy of complete disorder, without any limits. The implications of this dilemma are extremely high, for it suggests that Lacanian full speech—like Film Theory, so much of which stands on its shoulders—is an accomplice to social stability, despite its claims to the contrary.
Whiteness, then, and by extension civil society’s junior partners, cannot be solely “represented” as some monumentalized coherence of phallic signifiers but must, in the first ontological instance, be understood as a formation of “contemporaries” who do not magnetize bullets. This is the essence of their construction through an asignifying absence; their signifying presence is manifest in the fact that they are, if only by default, deputized against those who do magnetize bullets: in short, White people are not simply “protected” by the police, they are the police.
Saidiya Hartman illustrates how no discursive act by Blacks towards Whites or by Whites towards Blacks, from the mundane and quotidian, to the horrifying and outlandish can be disentangled from the gratuitousness of violence that structures Black suffering. This structural suffering, which undergirds the spectrum of Black life, from tender words of “love” spoken between slave women and White men to screaming at the whipping post, is imbricated in the “fungibility of the captive body” (Hartman 19). Black “fungibility” is a violence-effect that marks the difference between Black positionality and White positionality and, as Hartman makes clear, this difference in positionality marks a difference between capacities of speech.
The violence-induced fungibility of Blackness allows for its appropriation by White psyches as “property of enjoyment” (23-25). What’s more remarkable is that Black fungibility is also that property which inaugurates White empathy toward Black suffering (23- 25). We might say Black fungibility catalyzes a “heteropathic chain-reaction” that allows a White subject to inhabit multiple sites of suffering. But, again, does the exteriorization of one psyche (Silverman 266), enabled by Blackness, successfully strip White identity of all presence? Hartman poses this question in her critique of a Northern White man’s fantasy that replaces the body of slaves with the bodies of himself and his family, as the slaves are being beaten:
[B]y exporting the vulnerability of the captive body as a vessel for the uses, thoughts, and feelings of others, the humanity extended to the slave inadvertently confirms the expectations and desires definitive of the relations of chattel slavery. In other words, the case of Rankin’s empathetic identification is as much due to his good intentions and heartfelt opposition to slavery as to the fungibility of the captive body... In the fantasy of being beaten...Rankin becomes a proxy and the other’s pain is acknowledged to the degree that it can be imagined, yet by virtue of this substitution the object of identification threatens to disappear. (19)
Hartman calls into question the emancipatory claims (for both the individual psyche and the socius) of heteropathic identification and masochistic self-cancellation (loss of self in the other, a process germane to full speech) when these claims are not circumscribed by a White social formation—when they claim to be more than intra-Human discussions. For no web of analogy can be spun between, on the one hand, the free body that mounts fungible flesh on an emancipatory journey toward self-cancellation and, on the other hand, that fungible being that has just been mounted. The two positions are structurally irreconcilable, which is to say they are not “contemporaries.” Hartman puts a finer point on it:
...the effort to counteract the commonplace callousness to black suffering requires that the white body be positioned in the place of the black body in order to make this suffering visible and intelligible. Yet, if this violence can become palpable and indignation can be fully aroused only through the masochistic fantasy, then it becomes clear that empathy is double-edged, for in making the other’s suffering one’s own, this suffering is occluded by the other’s obliteration. (19)
"In life, identification is limited only by the play of endless analogies, but death is like nothing at all. Perhaps psychoanalysis and the promise of full speech are not ready for the end of the world. "