BAR Book Forum: Symposium on Achille Mbembe's "Critique of Black Reason" (Part 1)
The challenge for Black Study is to hold up examples of blackness that evade capture by the thought and institutions of the West.
“Advocates of Black Study are often very suspicious of any institutional configuration.”
(In this three-week symposium, we asked authors to comment on Achille Mbembe’s book, Critique of Black Reason. This week’s contributor is Vincent Lloyd, Associate Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at Villanova University)
“Black Study, Black Reason, Black Spirit”
Black studies is back. After years of relative stagnation – under-resourced, lacking robust disciplinary apparatus such as common conferences and journals, and suffering from the summation of individual pathologies unavoidable in those who survive long enough in racist academic spaces to achieve some standing – scholars across the humanities and critical social sciences are listening to what black studies scholars have to say. Black studies is generating theory that can be packaged and exported, theory that can take its place on today’s menu, represented by the Modern Language Association (MLA) program book, with such other entrées as affect theory, the anthropocene, and political theology.
Sometimes the theories emerging from black studies are disaggregated, with “black feminist theory,” “Afro-pessimism,” and “racial capitalism,” packaged separately. At other times, all of the theoretical ferment around black studies is condensed into Black Study. Just as, in Christian theology, specific, concrete worldly churches are not the Church, specific institutional configurations of black studies are not Black Study. In fact, advocates of Black Study are often very suspicious of any institutional configuration to the extent that such suspicion becomes partially constitutive of Black Study. The ideal is the informal discussion group rather than the university lecture hall, a group of activists and community members and university affiliates grappling together with ideas from the “black radical tradition.” Along with Black Study’s refusal of institutionalization comes a swirl of other terms: “the undercommons,” “fugitivity,” and “black mysticism.”
“Scholars across the humanities and critical social sciences are listening to what black studies scholars have to say.”
While I do worry that the gesture of refusal directed at academic institutions – concretely, black studies departments – in the name of Black Study risks leaving the dynamics of the academic marketplace undisturbed, easing the circulation of Black Study as commodity, it is nonetheless important to celebrate and interrogate the newfound vibrancy of Black Study. At its best, Black Study recaptures and elevates the best of the spirit behind the student protests that resulted in the institutionalization of black studies departments, specifically, the desire to hold departments accountable to black communities outside the university, the justice-oriented direction of scholarship, and the commitment to recovering and embracing Africana resources not just to admire as cultural artifacts but as theoretical tools and political weapons.
Achille Mbembe’s Critique of Black Reason swims in the currents of Black Study, and it positions itself as an attempt to reflexively explicate those currents. Drawing on African, Caribbean, and African American sources, mixing philosophy, psychoanalysis, and literature, Mbembe offers a series of sketches that illustrate what he takes to be exemplary methods applied to pressing questions in Black Study. Being trained in France rather than the United States – and because, to Americans, his name itself has already become a buzzword – Mbembe does not feel compelled to employ the latest theoretical buzzwords. He offers meditations prompted by texts, some in the canon of Black Study (Frantz Fanon, Marcus Garvey, Édouard Glissant), others not as yet central to the conversation (Sony Labou Tansi, Amos Tutuola, Fabien Eboussi Boulaga). While Mbembe’s earlier work might be read as applying French theory to an African context, Critique of Black Reason puts French theory in the background, presenting Africana sources as capable of “doing” theory themselves.
“Mbembe does not feel compelled to employ the latest theoretical buzzwords.”
I am interested in thinking with Mbembe’s presentation of Black Study because it strikes me as suggesting an even more ambitious philosophical project than Mbembe announces, and making explicit the principles of such a philosophical project is important in resisting the commodification of Black Study. “Slavery, colonization, and apartheid,” Mbembe writes, “imprison the ways in which Black discourse expresses itself” (78). These specific historical experiences are partially constitutive of blackness, creating problems for the lived experience of blackness in the past and today. Because of these experiences, blacks are separated from themselves, there is a falsification of the self by others, and there is degradation of the self to the point of abjection. Given these dynamics, “the Black Man,” Mbembe writes, has a strong desire “to know himself (the moment of sovereignty) and hold himself in the world (the moment of autonomy)” (79). Thus, out of the specific historical circumstances associated with blackness comes a pair of desires that are fundamentally ambivalent. They resemble the desires of liberal, Western man, but they also must run counter to those desires – for the desires of liberal, Western man resulted in slavery, colonization, and apartheid. The challenge for Black Study is to formulate, or lift up, successful responses to this situation of ambivalent desire.
“Ambivalent Black desires run counter to the desires of liberal, Western man.”
One response that tempts is a turn to the past. If only we could recover a tradition of blackness, rooted in primordial African experience, such a tradition would allow blacks to know and hold themselves outside the terms of Western liberalism. But this is pure fantasy, of course – a fantasy responsive to experiences of domination and so ultimately tethered to the dynamics of domination. An account of black tradition could be important, Mbembe asserts, but it must be developed with great care: “vigilance makes it possible to avoid repetition” (93). It is necessary to theorize “identity in the process of becoming, nourished by the ethnic, geographic, and linguistic differences among Blacks and by the traditions inherited through the encounter with what Édouard Glissant calls the Tout-Monde, the All-World” (95). In other words, it is necessary to think identity, black identity, as distinctive in a way that is not derivative of other claims to identity but that embraces a plurality of differences, that positively asserts autonomy in a context of uncountable differences. What this means is rather elusive in Mbembe’s text – he probably understands himself to be showing rather than telling his theoretical claim. But he does point to Africans’ “heretical genius” that allows them “to inhabit several worlds at once and situate themselves simultaneously on both sides of an image… by recruiting subjects into events, by splitting things, doubling them, and by engaging in an excess of theatricality that, again and again, accompanies the manifestations of life” (102).
“Mbembe points to Africans’ ‘heretical genius’ that allows them ‘to inhabit several worlds at once and situate themselves simultaneously on both sides of an image.’”
In some ways, the position Mbembe develops resonates with what is emerging as a core conviction of Black Study. Systems of anti-black domination have persisted since slavery in different forms, including segregation and mass incarceration, suggesting that anti-blackness is deeper than any empirical reality. It exists in a metaphysical register: anti-blackness entails the negation of black being, setting blackness outside the realm of ontology. The seemingly abstract ideas of the West are tied with the powers and institutions of the West that subjugate black bodies. Metaphysics does real violence. Because blackness is excluded from Western ontology, this story goes, blackness presents an opportunity to challenge the very foundations of the West (not only white supremacy but modernity, empire, capitalism, patriarchy, heteronormativity, and pretty much any other Bad Thing one can think of). This opportunity is missed if blackness is described in the terms of the West, seeking recognition. The challenge for Black Study is to hold up examples of blackness that evades capture by the thought and institutions of the West. The fugitive is the paradigm of blackness, an empirical reality that represents an ideal in the domains of history, aesthetics, politics, and philosophy (with the boundaries between these domains all illicit from the perspective of blackness-as-fugitivity).
This framing of intellectual work puzzles me. It sets up the scholar as the one tasked with tracking down the fugitive – deputizing the scholar to become slave-catcher. Put another way, redemption can only be found outside the law, a habit of thought that Christian theologians have named supersessionism when Christians have deployed it to contrast their orientation to grace with the studiously law-following Jews. There is a certain desire for purity at work, purity to be realized in blackness that evades the world, blackness to which our faith, hope, and love ought to affix. But the hunt for purity is always violent, with the missionary and the conquistador working hand in hand, with the search for redemption and the hunt for the runaway slave formally indistinguishable.
“We are much more likely to find it in communities struggling against domination than among those who live in comfort or complacency.”
The story Mbembe presents features the antagonist of Black Study, persistent, metaphysical-level anti-blackness, and it features the protagonist, the “heretical genius” evading in thought and practice the forces of anti-blackness. Mbembe is more cautious than those who would sing the praises of fugitivity without end. He acknowledges, “Carried to extremes, heretical genius produces situations of an extraordinary instability, volatility, and incertitude” (102). Black fugitivity is not the end point, for Mbembe, but an opening to the world as it really is, a world of relationality, of unending differences. The practices of the African “heretical genius” succeed when they serve as a tool to open that world; they fail when they become an end in themselves.
But is not this world of uncountable differences, of relationality, of “Afropolitanism,” the happily-ever-after of yet another story of redemption, of grace positioned against law? This strikes me as a danger that must be avoided, but there are moments in Mbembe’s thought that are more dialectical. Here is how I would want to draw them out: Naming anti-blackness as a deep and persistent problem is indisputably correct. That those who struggle (in the broadest sense, via political organizing or aesthetic practice or subtle silences) against domination have privileged insights is also indisputably correct. If we are looking for truth, and with it goodness and beauty, we are much more likely to find it in communities struggling against domination than among those who live in comfort or complacency.
It seems essential, however, to return to Hegel, inverted. Spirit unfolds at the many sites of struggle. These sites on the underside of world history are not all unified spatially or temporally, though they certainly resonate with each other. Participating in any site of struggle entails participating in the unfolding of Spirit, but Spirit is never fully realized in the world, and we can have no confidence that where it unfolds today will be where it unfolds tomorrow. Sites of struggle shift quickly. To tell a story of black reason, implicit in black tradition, cannot proceed as a romance, ending in marriage. Tragedy is the proper genre, fueled by Spirit, stifled by the world, but recognizing Spirit as a product of the world, oriented always against domination.
Vincent Lloyd is Associate Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at Villanova University.
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