Friendship at the end of the world: On Frank Wilderson III’s Afropessimism (2020). by Gerardo Muñoz

The publication of Frank Wilderson III’s Afropessimism (Liveright, 2020) marks an important break in contemporary thought, which has been seating comfortably for too long in the pieties of identity, culturalism, and politization. One of the most immediate effects of Afropessimism is how it unmasks the way in which identity and cultural hegemonic discourses, far from constituting a different horizon of the existing cliché, actually mitigate a spectacle of devices for the domestication of other possibilities of thought. Of course, some were aware of said spectacle, but now with Wilderson’s experiential writing the allure of subaltern subject position is finally destroyed from within. Wilderson’s account escapes two routes of the witness position: that of the personal memoir that contributes to a narrative of redemption; and on its reverse, that of testimonio, which in the postcolonial debates of the 1990s solicited a politics of alliance with the subaltern voice for a new politics of truth. In this sense, Wilderson’s Afropessimism is a post-hegemonic work through and through insofar as it destroys the hegemony of the citizen-subject of Liberalism, but also that of subaltern as a mere stock in the production of hegemony. As Wilderson claims early in the book “Black people embody a meta-aporia for political thought and action”, as such, Afropessimism is a radically unstable force that brings to bear the unthought of the most predomination critical paradigms of university discourse (Marxism, Postcolonial theory, feminism) as aggregation of politics of the subject  (13-14). 

Afropessimism is first and foremost a dislocation of the toolbox of critical of theory as always already complicit with the general movement of the imperial policing of thinking. The strategy is always the same when it comes to administrating a regime of reflexive order: posit a paradigm of a subject position and then mobilize it against other subjects. There is nothing radical about this validation; quite the contrary, it coincides with the arbitrary hierarchization of values proper to Liberalism’s current designs. Wilderson wants to destroy analogy just like he wants to be done with narrative of redemption, or ethical alliance since all of these are forms of reductions of the true experience of living at the “end of the world”. This is the apothegm from Fanon that creates the apocalyptic circuit in the book. What does it mean to live at the end of the world? This the vortex of Afropessimism, the atopic site that inscribes the existential conundrum of the Black form of life. The apocalyptic “end of the world” must be read as a concrete inhabitation of life, that is, “being at the end of the world entails Black folks at their best”, writes Wilderson (40). This entails that there is no world without Blacks, but Black experience is an incessant drift at the limit of the world as captured by the entrapment of Humanity. I take it that Wilderson means that “Afropessimism is Black folks at their best” in relation to a form of life at the level of experience that is not only constitutive of sociability, but that it also an intensity that rejects any domesticating efforts into a more “democratic” or “hegemonic” civil society. Under the rule of equivalent demands, where subjects and objects are exchanged (or camouflaged in the name of “Rights”), the Black can only constitute a “social death” that breaks any equilibrium, or that sustains the hylomorphism of its others (102). This goes to the heart of the articulation of hegemony, which for decades has been the leftist horizon of a good and democratic politics, but which for Wilderson amounts to the very logistics of the democratic plantation. In an important moment of the book, Wilderson argues against the theory of hegemony: 

“In the solicitation of hegemony, so as to fortify and extend the interlocutory life of civil society, ultimately accommodate only the satiable  demands  and  legible  conflicts  of civil society’s junior  partners  (such as immigrants, White women, the working class), but foreclose upon the  insatiable  demands and illegible  antagonisms of Blacks. In short, whereas such coalitions and social movements cannot be called the outright handmaidens of anti- Blackness, their rhetorical structures, political desire, and their emancipatory horizon are bolstered by a life- affirming  anti- Blackness; the death of Black desire.” (240)

There is no hegemony that is not conditioned by a non-subject, an abyss that marks the aggregation of their equivalent subjective demands. This is why the non-demand of the Black, who has nothing for exchange, remains at the limit of hegemony, or rather what I call a posthegemonic fissure, in which democratic desire and hegemonic articulation enter into an incommensurable zone. Given that blackness is the site of “social death…the first step toward the destruction if to assume one’s position and then burn the ship or the plantation from the inside out. However, as Black people we are often psychically unable and unwilling to assume this position. This is as understandable as it is impossible” (103). This is consistent with Wilderson’s label of Afropessimism as an aporetic meta-theoretical paradigm. The question of the possibility of an experiential exodus to an outside, and not just an internal limit to the metaphysics of Humanity is most definitely one question that one could raise about its “epistemological void” as parasitical to the infinite production of subjectivity (164). It is clear that by rejecting hegemony, Wilderson also has to give up any liberationist horizon at the service of a political project committed to Black emancipation. For Wilderson the legitimacy is somewhere else: “Afropessimism is not an ensemble of theoretical interventions that leads the struggle for Black liberation. One should think  of it as a theory  that is legitimate because it has secured a mandate from Black people at their best; which is to say, a mandate to speak the analysis and rage that most Black people are free only to whisper” (173). It is a rage that one could counterpose as the opposite of the subaltern politics of truth; in order words, it is a rage experienced against the “gratuitous violence” that divides the antagonism between a singular life and the world of the state of things and its people. 

The vortex of Wilderson’s Afropessisism, however, is not just the rejection of hegemonic articulation or the benevolent solidarity as administrated domination, it is rather the emphasis of a new world caesura that he frames in this way: “…the essential antagonism is the antagonism between Blacks and the world: the centrality of Black people’s social death, the grammar of suffering of the slave…” (174). This essential conflict stages the antagonism at the level of the debates about the frontier of Humanism, for which the Black, insofar as it is a figure of the non-subject, already acts an archipolitics that frees the intensification of any politics of liberation now transfigured as a liberation from politics [1]. This archipolitics dwells in the intensification of a non-identity that is irreducible to any hegemonic fantasy that labors on solidarity, equivalency, unity, program, demand, projection. And why not, also against the democratic polity (insofar as democracy cannot be thought outside the jointing of two apparatuses of civil society renewal: citizenship and mobilization). This archipolitics of Afropessimism puts into crisis the general categories of modern political thought, I am also tempting to limit this claim to the very notion of democratic practice as previously defined. Here the “legitimacy” that Wilderson evokes is no longer at the level of a new democratic renewal – which is always within the spirit of the modern liberal design; indeed, recently some have made legitimacy and hegemony conceptual couples – but rather as a poking outside the democratic imagination, which ultimately feeds Black social death, even when sustained by the social contract of hegemonic alliances.

Is there something beyond the subjection to alliance? In other words, what if being at the “end of the world” is also the time to undue the mystification of solidarity in the name of friendship? I agree with Jon Beasley-Murray, also writing about Frank Wilderson III, that the idea should not be to win over friends, but rather to suggest that friendship is still possible flight [2]. I would go as far as to call friendship an event of thought. Indeed, friendship has no stories to tell and does not seek redemption; it also betrays normative ethics each and every time. This is not to say that there such a thing as an archipolitics of friendship, nor a political program for a friendship of community. We have enough of that in every community form. Perhaps if we accept the event of singular friendship, we can move beyond the logistics of antagonism and hostility that are constitutive of Humanity, but irreducible to the specie that confronts the destiny of the inhuman. As a great thinker of the twentieth century wrote: “there are infinite possibilities of inhumanity in each man. There is no external enemy; this is why the tragic exists. This simple maxim confirms the fundamental thought of Robert Antelme. The “no-man” in man, attentive to perfection is what allows the sedimentation of the concentration camps. […] Friendship for me is not a positive thing nor a value, but rather a state, a multiplication of death, of interrogation, a neutral site where I can sense the unknown, the site where difference only expands in the place of its contrary – in proximity to death” [3]. One question that must accompany Wilderson’s formative book is whether the “spirit of friendship” with inhuman can be something like solace without redemption at the end of the world. Friendship could be understood here as the marker for the disunification of forms of life outside the condition of hostility without falling into nihilism. At the point, perhaps psychological categories such as optimism or pessimism now lose their relevancy as forms of life realize that they are already dwelling at the of the end of the world. 

Notes

  1. The conceptualization of Afropessisism as an archipolitics I owe to Alberto Moreiras. See his note “Whiteness and Humanity”, July 2020: “https://afropessimismandinfrapolitics.wordpress.com/2020/07/07/whiteness-and-humanity/
  2. 2. Jon Beasley-Murray. “Afropessimism”, July 2020: https://posthegemony.wordpress.com/2020/07/06/afropessimism/
  3. Dionys Mascolo. En torno a un esfuerzo de memoria: sobre una carta de Robert Antelme. Madrid: Arena Libros, 2005. 57. The translation to English is mine. 

Línea de sombra ten years after: introductory remarks at ACLA 2016 Harvard University. by Gerardo Muñoz & Sergio Villalobos-Ruminott

linea de sombra

Ten years have passed since the publication of Línea de sombra: el no-sujeto de lo político (Palinodia, 2006). It seems that this seminar received neither the most appropriate of titles, nor the most desirable one. At the end of the day, others are the ones that live by anniversaries, ephemerides, and revivals. In a way, to commemorate is a convoluted and dangerous move that recaps the jacobinist principle ‘down with the King, long live the principle!’

Something radically other is at stake here, or so we wish to propose. To the extent that something is ‘actual’ is so because it allows conditions for thinking and thought; that is, conditions of doing in thought. Then, of course, there are activities and activities. As Lyotard observed, there are some activities that do not really transform anything, since ‘to do’ is no a simple operation (Lyotard 111). So much is needed for this encounter to happen – and the purpose of this encounter with many friends here is Línea de sombra ten years after. This was Alberto’s fourth major book – after Interpretacion y diferencia (1992), Tercer espacio (1999), and The Exhaustion of Difference (2001), and that is without counting his early La escritura política de José Hierro (1987). Línea, we should not forget it, was published in Chile in 2006, under turbulent circumstances. We are referring here of course to Alberto’s exodus to Aberdeen, and in a way his “exile” from the enterprise of Latinamericanism. The drift to suspend the categorial structure of the Latinamericanist reflection was already underway in Tercer espacio and Exhaustion, books that radically altered the total sum of reflections on and about Latin America, in the literary and the cultural levels, and whose consequences were felt, though we are not too sure that they have been fully pursued and taken to its outermost transgressive limits. As Alberto has repeated often, the issues on the end of the 1990s and the beginning of the 2000s are still among us, but we have yet been able to deal with them radically, which means, to deal with them without just reproducing the constitutive limited structures and categorical systems that have informed Latinamericanism and Hispanism at large through the twentieth-century.

In this sense, Línea de sombra is an unfinished intervention. In part because it did not produce many interlocutors and readers when published, or perhaps because it was taken (and it is understood as such still today) as a book that transgressed the ‘Latinamericanist reason’, opening itself to a region of thought that was in itself undisciplined, savage, and for the same reason, considered an outlaw intervention (and we should keep in mind this tension between thinking and law). It does not matter. But what really does matter is that we consider the silences around Alberto’s intervention not as a personal affair, but as a particular effect of a certain disposition of hierarchies and prestige within the contemporary university. As if Línea (and the other books) were dammed from the beginning due to the constitutive limitation of Hispanism and due to the lack of interest in theoretical approaches coming form Latinamericanism, a field that was usually identified with the exoticism of political conundrums and the curiosities coming out of Third World countries.

Of course, the reverse side of this underprivileged condition of Spanish language for intellectual reflection is that it (re)produces reactive effects. For example, the decolonial option demands a constant revision of the privilege that Spanish has had in the process of representing Latin American realities. However, the paradox arises when this decolonial turn limits itself to the glorification of native languages as if they carry with them a more authentic access to the real, without questioning the self-limitation that both, Latinoamericanist criollo scholars and decolonial ones, show in restricting themselves to the same ethnographic task, avoiding not an explicit politics of identification, but avoiding the most urgent and radical politics of thinking. This politics of thinking doesn’t belong to disciplines and doesn’t follow University structruration. This is what we call infrapolitics.

In fact, we recently called this self-imposed limitation in Latinamericanism ‘late criollismo’ in relation to the last manifestations (political practices and historical forms of imagination) of a particular tradition of thought that, reactively, is confronting the dark side of modernity and globalization with a dubious re-territorialization of affects, practices and politics: from neo-indigenism to neo-communitarianism to literary New Rights, from neo-progressism to neo-developmentalism and neo-extractivism.

On the other hand, we should not forget it, Spanish was an imperial language, and the current (rhetoric of) privilege for ‘Spanish’ is also at the heart of the neoliberal university. In fact, it is what allows the expansion of the language programs, and by consequence, the expansion of ‘adjunct professors’ and ‘part-time post-PhD students’ that carry departmental duties. An exponential process of subalternization that professors that defend far-away subalterns always seem to forget. One might say, the psychotic decolonial affect is possible by the foreclosure of a minimal distance in favor of the maximization of their subjective drive, in a process of identification that is also a process of libidinal investment and insemination.

Línea de sombra appeared in this context, but we do not think it wants to take part on either the side of defending the underdog or assuming a counter-hegemonic capitulation of Spanish as the master language or even the variations of Spanish as a sort of a new pluralism against Iberian hegemony. Línea renounces what Derrida calls in an essay of Rogues the ‘presbeia kai dunamei’, which is roughly translated as ‘majesty and power’, but it also renounces to the privilege of the predecessor or forbear, the one that commands, the archē (Derrida 138). Alberto’s text is a call for releasement of such a demand as principle of reason into a different relation with thought – now we think it is fair to say that that relation is always an infrapolitical relation – positing the archē of the political parallel to the category of the subject. In the introduction Alberto lays the question:

“El subjetivismo en política es siempre excluyente, siempre particularista, incluso allí donde el sujeto se postula como sujeto comunitario, e incluso ahí donde el sujeto se autopostula como representante de lo universal…el límite de la universalidad en política es siempre lo inhumano. ¿Y el no sujeto? ¿Es inhumano? Pero el no-sujeto no amenaza: solo está, y no excepcionalmente, sino siempre y por todas partes, no como el inconsciente sino como sombra del inconsciente, como, por lo tanto, lo más cercano, y por ello, en cuanto que más cercano, al mismo tiempo como lo ineludible y como lo que más elude” (Moreiras 12-13).

So, el no sujeto is an excess of the political subject, an incalculable and unmanageable rest, since the non-subject of the political just is, without a why. Just like the counter-communitarianism cannot constitute a principial determination, the non-subject does not wish to do so either. Indeed, Línea de sombra unfolds a complex instantiation against every nomic determination that guarantees the truth of the idea or the concept. But the non-subject haunts its violence, its transgression. Following our recent encounter with Schürmann’s work, we can say it confronts the latent forgetting of the tragic condition of being.

Indeed, the political has rarely been thought against the grain of its nomic and decionist principles, and Línea de sombra was (and still is) an invitation to do so. Our impression is that it is a book that does not want to teach or master anything, but thematizes something that has always been already there, even if some prefer to sublimate it into the principle of satisfaction. The price to be paid for that is quite high. Hence the desire to move thought elsewhere: indifferent to legacy, proper name, inheritance, masters, and subjects.

We propose, then, to think collectively these days around the promise, the offer, and the gift of this book, but not necessarily to place it in a central canonical position. Rather we intend to open its questions to interrogate our own historical occasion.

Notes

Alberto Moreiras. Línea de sombra: el no-sujeto de lo político. Santiago de Chile: Palinodia, 2006.

Jacques Derrida. Rogues: two essays on reason. Stanford University Press, 2005.

Jean François Lyotard. Why Philosophize? Polity, 2013.

*Image by Camila Moreiras, 2016.