As part of the Black Agenda Report Book Forum, we interview scholars about a recent article they’ve written for either an academic journal or popular publication. We ask these scholars to discuss their article, as well as some of the books that have most influenced them.
This week’s featured scholar is Matthieu Chapman. Dr. Chapman is Assistant Professor of Theatre Studies at the State University of New York at New Paltz. His essay is “‘Away, You Ethiop!’: A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the Denial of Black Affect—A Song to Underscore the Burning of Police Stations”.
In your article, you ask: “Have you ever seen a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream with a content warning for racial violence?” Can you share how this question connects to the article’s larger argument and your assertion that the play is “part of a centuries-long continuum of anti-black violence that distorts the affective resonance between blackness and humanity”?
This question sets the groundwork for interrogating the larger issue at play, which is: How does human civil society grapple with its incapacity to empathize with and grant recognition to black flesh? Frank Wilderson argues that civil society actually needs to see black suffering and black death for its mental health, and that black suffering is a source of pleasure for the human/non-black psyche. Often when discussing the afterlives of chattel slavery, our focus is on the social, political, and cultural institutions that continue to perpetrate anti-black violence—things like the police, voting laws, school admissions, etc. But our focus on these institutions, while of course meaningful and necessary if we are to achieve liberation, creates an easy target for individuals to deflect their role in the perpetration of anti-black violence and their participation in maintaining the ontological divide that keeps blacks separate from humanity. So instead of focusing on institutional sources of anti-blackness, I decided to ask each individual to interrogate their role in maintaining anti-blackness. So the question begins with “Have you ever seen a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream with a content warning for racial violence?” with the hopes that the reader will then ask why they haven’t, under what circumstances do we even recognize anti-black violence as such, and what causes this failure to recognize anti-black violence? And with Shakespeare still maintaining such a revered place in the American cultural and educational milieu, what damage do we do when we enforce this work on black folx in schools and audiences? We currently live in a country that is banning everything that makes white people uncomfortable while continuing to teach work that, in this case, literally tells black children that they are objects of exile and derision. And with Midsummer, we do this in a comedy. So when I talk about the distorted affective resonances, the question interacts with both the larger cultural conversations but also the specific genre questions of Midsummer. Our government is currently working to keep white children from feeling bad about the themselves because of racism while continuing to reinforce anti-blackness with no consideration of black children. This lack of consideration, of empathy, for black bodies, and the sacrificing of them for the sake of white children, reveals a divide at the very level of human capacity for feeling between the two beings. And with a piece like Midsummer, we do this work of dis-affecting the world from blackness by positioning this exile and abjection as a source of laughter, or pleasure.
How do analytic terms like “libidinal economy” and “civil society” inform your argument? How do these terms help us understand that there is no shared grammar of suffering between Black and non-Black people?
I want to begin with a definition of libidinal economy. Jared Sexton defines libidinal economy as “the economy, or distribution and arrangement, of desire and identification (their condensation and displacement), and the complex relationship between sexuality and the unconscious…[it is] the whole structure of psychic and emotional life… [that is] a dispensation of energies, concerns, points of attention, anxieties, pleasures, appetites, revulsions, and phobias capable of both great mobility and tenacious fixation.” Engaging with libidinal economy allows us to question anti-blackness not just at the levels of institutions or events, but at the level of the psyche and pre-conscious, to critique how anti-blackness informs civil society’s thought patterns at every instance. In this case, I use “civil society” in the Gramscian sense, as the private or non-state sphere of society that includes structures of filiation (family, home, etc.) as opposed to political society that includes structures of affiliation (police, government, etc.), although the two often overlap. To Antonio Gramsci, political society is the realm of force and civil society is the realm of consent: political society enforces rule; civil society consents to being ruled. As Sexton, Hortense Spillers, and Saidiya Hartman have argued (along with numerous others, but they were some of the first) black flesh exists in a state that is constituted by violence and, as such, cannot consent as every action is always already coerced, and that civil society actually uses black flesh to determine the limits of violence that can be inflicted on the civil subject. With these definitions in mind, these terms help us to articulate the levels at which anti-blackness is functioning—not just the realm of political identification, but the level of psychic structure—the realm of desire and affect, and how blackness scandalizes the way affective responses circulate between humans and how long these structures have functioned within this rubric.
You share stories of friends, news outlets, and social media posting videos of anti-Black violence without content warnings. One example was officer Derek Chauvin’s murder of George Floyd. How do thinkers like Saidiya Hartman and Jared Sexton help us recognize the connections between pleasure, empathy, anti-Blackness, and spectacular displays of violence?
Returning to the definitions of and thoughts of the previous answer, we think of violence as something that is inflicted onto a being—a disruption of the everyday comfort, autonomy, and pleasure of existing as a human. We empathize when we recognize that these disruptions occur, we feel the pain and suffering of the being. Using affect theory, these events and responses are, according to Silvan Tomkins, who is considered one of the founders of the theory, are “hard-wired, preprogrammed, genetically transmitted mechanisms that exist in each of us,” which, when triggered, precipitate a “known pattern of biological events.” But when it comes to black suffering, these “hard-wired” mechanisms differ. Black pain produces pleasure in the civil subject. Perhaps not consciously, although the internet is full of memes of people “Trayvonning” and “Floyding”—sharing their photographs of themselves posing in the manner of murdered black men for internet likes. So this raises the questions: What happens when violence is not a disruption of being, but rather constitutive of being? How do we re-think empathy when the cause of empathy is not a disruption, but the whole of being? Saidiya Hartman challenges empathetical relations between humans and black flesh in Scenes of Subjection when she discusses the countless examples of abolitionists mediating the suffering of blacks through their imagination and personal experiences. For example, she discusses the case of John Rankin, who in his letters was “aghast” at the conditions of slavery, but instead of empathizing with the black flesh being subjected to violence, writes “My flighty imagination added much to the tumult of passion by persuading me, for the moment, that I myself was a slave, and with my wife and children placed in the reign of terror. I began in reality to feel for myself, my wife, and my children” (emphasis added). This phenomenon still repeats today in the spectacle of violence on black flesh—civil society does not empathize with the black flesh, but rather, they empathize with imagined versions of themselves as black flesh. In these imaginings, much like in Rankin, the black flesh is removed from affective consideration—it cannot provoke empathy, only imagination. The civil subject cannot relate to the black flesh, only to their own ideas of blackness and/or other humans. The empathy short circuits. The pain is a target of derision, not empathy. This affective dissonance manifests in other ways, such as the rhetoric of “if I was…” “If I was black, I would just listen to the police and be safe,” and other BS like that. If you are not black, you cannot imagine a position outside of the protections of civil society—you cannot imagine state of ontological slavery (Wilderson) or ontological terror (Warren)—you can only imagine terror and violence experiential not constitutive. So this spectacular violence fills a psychic need for the subject—they confirm their humanity, their presence, by the gratuitous (without cause or limit) violence inflicted on blackness. Put all this together—the inability to empathize, the ruptures of imagination, the ways blackness distorts affect, the sharing of spectacular violence—and we see a continuation of the carnival atmosphere of lynchings as analyzed by David Marriott re-performed through social media. The pleasure of black death re-organized to fulfill the psychic needs of the human subject and the politic needs of the white liberal.
You engage theoretical conversations on the afterlives of slavery “by questioning whether black slavery had or has a pre-life.” “Can black slavery have an afterlife,” you ask, “if black slavery never begins or ends, but rather exists in an absolute and atemporal is?” Can you explain how your research around race in early modern England helps you wrestle with this question?
The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and Chattel Slavery in America, really the Americas, is such a unique historical institution that it lends itself to analysis. Many of the theorists who engage an Afro-Pessimist framework recognize that anti-blackness is a global issue, but then confine their analyses to America. Frank Wilderson’s Red, White, and Black, Saidiya Hartman’s Scenes of Subjection, Jared Sexton’s Amalgamation Schemes, Calvin Warren’s Ontological Terror, and even many books that do Afro-Pessimist analyses of literature and art—John Murillo’s Impossible Stories, for example—focus on the Americas and American authors. Frank Wilderson states this focus on America most directly in Red, White, and Black when he argues, “Africans went into the ships and came out as black.” Since this quote, the analysis has certainly expanded with works like Denise Ferreira da Silva’s Towards a Global Idea of Race and Zakkiyah Iman Jackson’s Becoming Human, and my own. I want to keep exploring the idea of continuum—temporally and spatially—to find when and how anti-blackness became the organizing foundation of the world. My work in early modern England expands the continuum of anti-blackness one step before the slave ship, and people in Medieval Studies such as Mary Rambaran-Olm and Erik Wade are now exploring the continuum of anti-blackness in an earlier period. I don’t entirely know why, to be honest—perhaps it is hope? Maybe if we can find the origin of anti-blackness, we can dismantle it?
A lot of organizers, artists, and academics can often point to books that helped radicalize them. Are there any books that radicalized you? How so?
I have problems with the notion that books radicalized me or that I am even radicalized. Why is seeking black liberation more radical than maintaining anti-blackness? Are there books that helped me realize the depths of the problem? Absolutely. I first encountered Afro-pessimism in early 2011 when I took a seminar with Frank Wilderson at UC Irvine. I was a first-year Theatre Ph.D. student with an acting background who had never encountered stuff like Afro-Pessimism. Like most people, what little familiarity and education I had in black life/black being/blackness were the narratives of resistance and progress, the ol’ “if we only got to spend more time together, races would all see we aren’t that different!” But in this seminar, we read Sexton’s Amalgamation Schemes; Frank’s own Red, White, and Black; Hartman’s Scenes of Subjection; and David Mariott’s On Black Men, among others. I wouldn’t say these books radicalized me. I would say that these books offered a better vocabulary to explain the radical way in which the world had treated me my whole life—why my white mother called my black father “nigger” even though she supposedly loved him. Why a cop pulled his gun on me for jaywalking when I was 15, stuff like that. So no book radicalized me…if I am radicalized, the anti-black world radicalized me and these books gave me a vocabulary and frame to analyze that world. I make these connections and explain how I came to think like I do much more fully in my forthcoming memoir, Shattered: Fragments of a Black Life (WVU Press, 2023).
Which two books published in the last five years would you recommend to BAR readers? How do you envision engaging these works in your future scholarship?
Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake: On Blackness and Being is six years old now, but I’m going to include it anyway as I already engage it in my work. I would also put Zakiyyah Iman Jackson’s Becoming Human: Matter and Meaning in an Antiblack World. Both of these books are phenomenal and have received a lot of attention, so most of your readers are probably familiar. I absolutely love John Murillo’s Impossible Stories: The Time and Space of Black Destructive Creation. His work has been a massive influence not only on how I think, but how I write. The way he uses the narratives and structures he analyzes to structure his own work, the looping of time and memory, the breadth of methodologies, exploding expected forms of scholarship because they could not accommodate the theory and content he had to put out…from content to form to structure, this book expands the possibilities of what black theory can be. I also want to look to some of the brilliant, up and coming minds in the field whose books will be out in the next five years: Jerome Dent, Tajia MacDougall, Kevin Rigby, JonJon Moore…these are all theorists whose work I look forward to engaging with in the near future.
Roberto Sirvent is editor of the Black Agenda Report Book Forum.