Black people are without the shelter of rights and protection, whether invited into or locked out of ‘the human.’”
“Black people are ‘recognized’ but only as a lesser human.”
In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is Zakiyyah Iman Jackson. Jackson is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Southern California. Her book is Becoming Human: Matter and Meaning in an Antiblack World.
Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
Zakiyyah Iman Jackson: There has historically been a persistent question regarding the quality of black people’s humanity. African diasporic literature and cultural production have often been interpreted as a reaction to this racialization—a plea for human recognition.My book, Becoming Human: Matter and Meaning in an Antiblack World takes a different approach. I argue that key African American, African, and Caribbean literary and visual texts generate conceptions of being and materiality that creatively disrupt a human-animal distinction that persistently reproduces the racial logics and orders of Western thought. These texts move beyond a critique of bestialization to generate new possibilities for rethinking ontology: our being, fleshly materiality, and the nature of what exists and what we can claim to know about existence.
I argue that the texts in my study generate alternative possibilities for reimaging (human) being because they neither rely on the disparagement of “the animal” or the “animalistic” to define the human, nor reestablish “human recognition” within the dominant conception as an antidote to racialization. Ultimately, Becoming Human reveals the pernicious peculiarity of reigning foundational conceptions of “the human” rooted in Renaissance and Enlightenment humanism and expressed in current multiculturalist alternatives. What emerges from this questioning is a generative, unruly sense of being/knowing/feeling existence.
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
Too often, our conception of antiblackness is equated with “dehumanization,” “denied humanity,” or “exclusion,” yet, as Saidiya Hartman has identified in her path-breaking study, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America, the process of making the slave relied on the abjection and criminalization of the enslaved’s humanity rather than merely on the denial of it. With Hartman’s insight in mind, I argue what we have to contend with is more complex than a simple opposition such as “inclusion versus exclusion,” “the human” versus “the animal,” and “humanization versus dehumanization.” Binaristic frameworks such as “humanize versus dehumanize” and “human versus animal” are insufficient to understand antiblackness because racism has developed social technologies of humanization in order to refigure blackness as abject human animality and extends human recognition in an effort to demean blackness as “the animal within the human” form.
This is not to say that expressions and practices of antiblackness never radically exclude black people from the category of “the human”; rather, the point is that inclusion does not provide a reliable solution because, in the main, black people have been included in (one might even say dominated by) “universal humanity”— but as the incarnation of abject dimensions of humanity. Thus, black people are without the shelter of rights and protection, whether invited into or locked out of “the human.” Consequently, a transformative approach to being, feeling, and knowing is needed rather than the extension of human recognition under the law’s normative conception. My project aims to expose and meditate on the violence of liberal humanism’s attempts at humanization.
We know readers will learn a lot from your book, but what do you hope readers will un-learn? In other words, is there a particular ideology you’re hoping to dismantle?
Rather than fostering “equality,” the acknowledgment of humanity has often served as an instantiation of racial hierarchy, as black people are “recognized” but only as a lesser human in (pre)evolutionist discourse or criminalized by state discourses. Both discourses (science and law) have historically recognized black humanity and included black people in their conceptualization of “the human” but in the dissimulating terms of an imperial racial hierarchy. What I would like the book to inspire is a relinquishment of a melancholic attachment to the human ideal, which I argue has given us a planetary ecological crisis and racial hierarchy as the modus operandi of “universal humanity.” “The human” is none other than its condition of possibility: slavery, colonialism, dominion, and racist reason.
It is perhaps prior scholarship’s interpretation of antiblackness as “dehumanization” that has facilitated a call for greater inclusion, as a corrective to what it deems is a historical exclusion of blackness. One consequence of this orientation is that many scholars have essentially ignored alternative conceptions of being and the nonhuman that have been produced by black people. Becoming Human foregrounds black cultural production that moves beyond a demand for recognition and inclusion in the very normative humanity that I show in the book is fundamentally antiblack, while also calling into question the presumptive logic undergirding the specter of animalization, particularly as it pertains to discourses of sexuality, gender, and maternity.
Who are the intellectual heroes that inspire your work?
I am drawn to thinkers that shift the terms of given discourse and invent new forms. I believe risk and even failure are aspects of an intellectual practice that produces good work: thought that is needed even if unanticipated or undesired at the time of its publication. Risking illegibility is crucial to participating in the transformation of thought and action. I am also moved by experiments in thought that are deeply attuned to feeling and the visceral dimensions of existence. Sensuous thinking is the best.
Sylvia Wynter once said, “When I write, I want to sound in theory the way Aretha Franklin sounds in song…I would like to feel that everything I said had a liberatory or emancipatory dimension.” She was careful to clarify that this characteristic was not in any way dependent on “genius.” I think transformative insight is about the quality of one’s questioning and the commitment to follow through. Following through inherently entails the interdependence of thought which is one of the reasons it is not about genius.
If I were to offer a list of names of people I think with, in addition to Wynter, I’d start with M. NourbeSe Philip, CeCe McDonald, Frantz Fanon, Toni Morrison, Édouard Glissant, Audre Lorde, Octavia St. Laurent, and Aimé Césaire. These are not thinkers that agree with each other or share a common project—in fact, their aims are in numerous instances quite at odds—but what they share is a commitment to thinking that pushes us to reimagine the intellectual or to ponder new modalities of intellectualism.
In what way does your book help us imagine new worlds?
In Becoming Human, I argue that the idea of “the world,” and especially “the world as such,” is a totalizing myth that has arisen against a backdrop of antiblackness and the nullification of nonhuman worlding. Specifically, I focus on the particular problem of the definite article ‘the,’ as a qualifier of ‘world.’ I argue for a disenchantment of the idea of “the world,” which is really an ideal of “the world” as a knowable concept. The idea of “the world” is imperialism in thought.
“‘The world,’ and especially “the world as such,” I argue fails as a concept, at knowability, but succeeds as an idea(l) of imperialist myth predicated on the central marginalization of black feminine positionality with respect to authoritative thought. When we say “the world” it is always someone’s idea(l) of world we are evoking, usually Western Man and not that of a black woman, and not that of a hen, not that of a microbe, and not that of a grain of sand. No perspective gives us access to the totality of planetary existence. Thus, this critique is not limited to any particular representation of “the world” but a rejection of the idea of “the world” as a knowable concept. That said, I still hold on to the notion of incalculable and untotalizable ways of making world.
“The idea of “the world” is imperialism in thought.”
I want worlds that we currently can’t imagine but desperately need. I want worlds that presently only take the form of a gesture because they exist at the edge of legibility or exist as potential rather than possibility. I think a part of my job is to help shift the relation between potential and possibility such that the terms of legibility shift, thinkability shifts, desire shifts, feeling shifts under the weight and in the face of both unexpected potential and incalculable terror. Although the kind of movement I describe is characterized by the unforeseen and unpredictable, it may be registered by desire. What I hope Becoming Human does is provoke yearning for, and the pursuit of, liberatory thought and action that —by its very upending nature—is commonly held to be impractical and improbable.
Roberto Sirvent is Professor of Political and Social Ethics at Hope International University in Fullerton, CA, and an Affiliate Scholar at Yale University’s Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics, where he directs the Race, Bioethics, and Public Health Project. He is co-author, with fellow BAR contributor Danny Haiphong, of the book, American Exceptionalism and American Innocence: A People’s History of Fake News—From the Revolutionary War to the War on Terror.
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