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 Sara-Maria Sorentino. Sorentino is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Gender and Race Studies at the University of Alabama. Her article is “Mistresses as Masters?: The Textual Pleasures of the Plantation Present.”
You argue that the concept of “slave-owning women” is paradigmatic to “woman,” and not, as traditionally understood, a perversion of it. How does this connect to your essay’s epigraph, where Patrice Douglass writes, “The archive of gender is structurally anti-black”?
This essay engages the question of gender to interrogate the story that historiography tells about slavery’s more constitutive violence. I began noticing how archival reconstructions of the plantation make the slave-owning mistress represent exceptional moments and glimmers of reprieve, despite also overtly calling attention to how she was brutal and violent (and this is unavoidable in the archive). Recent correctives by Thavolia Glymph and Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers have turned this benevolent mistress on its head by insisting the mistress is just as violent, and in the same ways, as the master. While I am interested in how this ‘malevolent’ corrective opens up new and necessary archival readings, it also seems its mode of inversion underdetermines the scope and scale of the mistress’s violence, especially her role in gender (re)production. If historiographical interpretation as a form colludes with gender as a genre, to think with Sylvia Wynter, and if the plantation is paradigmatic for contemporary configurations, then slavery works to produce human differentiation, more broadly. My suspicion, then, is that “woman” in these stories often stands for a particular sort of possibilization—affect, embodiment, recuperation, recovery, repair—whose difference doubles as a raison d’être for historical retelling while also sublimating slavery’s violence.
One of the many insights in Saidiya Hartman’s Scenes of Subjection is that descriptors of history cannot be changed simply through the introduction of new content (the mistress’s violence, finally revealed), else we miss, in this instance, how the possibility the mistress represents becomes the engine for the “pastoral” mise-en-scène in present historical and activist practices. To make the mistress inoperable in a way that exceeds inversion, the specific form of history and gender needs to be challenged as well. This might mean, for example, we do not need to read violence as masked by love; love itself is the form that history takes to engender itself. It also means continuing to reckon with how blackness, as an enforced empty vehicle for gender differentiation Hartman calls “fungibility,” becomes a route for historical meaning-making and the possibilization of the human qua species-being, which is what gender represents and historical practice facilitates, for better and worse.
It’s common to refer to “patriarchy” as a structure of domination, yet your article describes this analytic frame as one “that freezes mistresses and female slaves as sisters in victimhood.” In other words, you write, historiographies of white womanhood assume that “patriarchy was and remains the unifying field of power.” How do you see these theoretical assumptions reproduced in current feminist movements (and scholarship)? What are the limitations of building coalitions between Black and non-Black women, even if these movements are transnational in nature?
I’m currently extending this argument in a critique of the household as the anthropological site through which divisions of labor prefigure patriarchal domination. The most thoroughgoing of these orientations end up being Marxist critiques because their focus on questions of property and ownership reveal gender and kinship to be mutable and highly charged social forms. Though recent Marxist social reproduction theory attempts to activate a “unitary” system that can account for gender and race as moments of capitalist valorization (the figure of the migrant worker and the surrogate become ready transnational stand-ins), there remains an undecidability about how constitutive gender and race are to capitalism’s historical and logical forms. I attempt to amplify this wavering by attending to how Marxism’s reconfiguration of the oikos remains dependent on a woman-slave analogy and how this analogy re-inscribes the slave’s incapacity (different, I’d argue, from women’s reduced capacity). Briefly, slavery must be considered abolished for the household domination of women to reveal how the absurdity of the contract displaces and concentrates mastery into the home.
Intersectionality points to how unitary theories elide the historical legacy of black women’s non-relation to kinship/family (why the Moynihan Report’s relation to slavery is so central) and immediate convergence with the household (as sexual property, not protected from the relationality that elevates the oikos above the natural and necessary). Afro-pessimism does something just at the edges of the intersection. By staying with the geometric impossibility of the slave, it writes a new paradigm—the antagonism between the human and the slave, where the slave’s incapacity is not displaced but perfected—and asks theorists and activists to come clean, in turn, about their grounding presuppositions. This speculative political-theoretical enterprise attempts to stay at the limit of violence without overdetermining the ground of liberation in advance. Logically, the end of the world might have conditions leading up to it—political and sexual practices of gendering already at play in black feminist, queer, and trans spaces—but Afro-pessimism stays agnostic about these forms, focusing on how liberatory dreams take the shape of the borrowed institutionality of capacity/possibility. Staying at the limit is also a way of beginning to account, as Patrice Douglass has written, “for the gravity of gender violences that lack a proper name.”
In a section of your discussion, you draw on Jacques Lacan to examine the mistresses’s rage. Elsewhere, you bring up the “fantasies” and “alternative affective economies” of mistresses. How does psychoanalysis inform your work? More specifically, how does the idea of libidinal economy help us understand the historiographical distinction between “good” and “bad” mistresses?
This question rightly points to one of the tensions in this essay, and others I’ve written that focus on historiography (“So-Called Indigenous Slavery” on African Studies, for example). I’ve been wanting to see how far I can take historiography to the edge of theoretical questions—so while Marx, Lacan, Fanon, Wilderson, and Douglass swirl around, I tried to bracket them until I couldn’t any longer. A psychoanalyst might describe this practice as symptomatic, and I suppose it contains a metacommentary on symptoms.
‘Racial capitalism’ makes some practical sense because its articulation of two apparently separate spheres—race and class, or slavery and capitalism—end up collapsing race into a problem of capitalism. Blackness here mediates what otherwise seems incommensurate. Psychoanalysis, by contrast, might make less immediate sense for race and slavery because there is too much immediacy; there seems almost no room to articulate. Blackness is the unconscious. I suspect this is why I find it relatively easy to write through psychoanalysis but clunky to write about. But there are cracks where a different orientation can be gleaned. The crucial concept might be the Lacanian Real. If the Real is the transhistorical that falls out of symbolization, it is also the absence that symbolization presupposes—a problem historiography continually encircles. That encircling, critically reconstructed, can make a world of difference for thinking about slavery as the Real of psychoanalytic concepts and practice (and I’d argue it was for Lacan and his master-signifier, though Fanon makes a different and perhaps better case).
My longer goal is to see how far these knots in slavery’s historiography can be reconstructed in theoretical-logical terms. Thus far I’ve engaged libidinal economy as a necessary supplement to political economy: property, profit, wages matter as life and death questions, yes, but life and death questions are themselves always symbolic, desired (or not), and expressed through fantasies. I am hoping to build more architecture for the claim that slaves not only produce commodities for the global economy or desires for a universal fantasy, but also produce the distinction between the two as a way the world can continue its circuits of enjoyment without short-circuiting. The fetishistic inversions of the good and bad mistress relay this tension.
You recently wrote an article called, “The Abstract Slave: Anti-Blackness and Marx’s Method,” for the journal of International Labor and Working-Class History. What are the analytical gaps of Marx’s method for confronting structures of anti-Blackness?
Marx’s method is paradoxically well-suited to the theoretical critique of anti-blackness. One part of me is inclined to say Marx developed the right method—immanent critique, real abstraction, an analysis of social forms—but began with the wrong object. While Marx approached slavery metaphorically (“wage slavery”) and historically (a subsumed mode of production), I’m interested in what would happen if slavery was considered not merely a historical preface that withers away, or pedestal that is superseded, but a theoretical problem for totality on the order of (or exceeding) capitalism. Could there be a critique of the critique of political economy (now standing Marx on his head) adequate to the problem of anti-blackness? An immanent critique of this sort seems necessary, though precariously so, to expose the ways latent Marxist readings of labor tend to answer questions about anti-blackness, and slavery’s relationship to capitalism, before they have been adequately posed.
If Marx’s “abstract labor” is the way human capacity has become developed one-sidedly, visions of emancipation tend to want to liberate capacity for its full flourishing by also sidelining what bargain might have been struck for reduced capacity to feel like freedom. As the incapacity that is both the prelude to and remnant of this bargain, “abstract slavery” might extend the classic libidinal economizing involved in “wages of whiteness” (“I may be poor, broken, downtrodden, expropriated, incarcerated, but at least I’m not black”) towards a critical apparatus that encircles a negation always in motion. It may be that race is the way anti-blackness appears to political economy, such that labor, exploitation, capital, and the commodity are some of the best avenues through which to understand racial hierarchies. But this does not mean race need be reduced to its appearance; its appearance, and this is one of Marx’s greatest gifts for critical method, may be the distorted form of something else. And calling this something else anti-blackness, instead of capitalism, seems to me to have much more explanatory power because it deploys a problematic in which blackness is not hierarchy (reduced capacity) but negation, that which cannot appear except in scenes of racial violence that police and spectacularize incapacity.
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?
Books seem to come into our lives on rafts that already prepare their way. In one sense you have to already be radicalized, ready to take on the grammar of the enterprise, for them to be legible at all. I’m sure I have read a good number of things that could have uprooted my thinking but I was too stubborn, my drives taking me down other avenues. The books that have most transformed me are often the ones where I found someone giving voice to an intuition I already felt but couldn’t quite name, with just enough dissonance for it to incite, compel, cause me to stretch. Being a bit generous, I’d say this isn’t wholly a circular or imaginary reading, where you only see your reflection, because what you recognize is something with a difference. And it seems it’s that kernel of that keeps you coming back. The radicality is likely in the return—the more dog-eared and scrappy the book, the more read and remarked, the more it has likely seeped into the very style and syntax of your work, gotten to the root.
Those books for me would be Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks, Frank Wilderson’s Red, White & Black, Denise Ferreira da Silva’s Towards a Global Idea of Race, and Sylvia Wynter’s unpublished Black Metamorphosis—you can feel their text buzzing with the attempt to transform the very scope and sense of the problem, not merely rearranging given attributes. In the Marxist terrain, Moishe Postone’s Time, Labor, and Social Domination and Slavoj Žižek’s Sublime Object of Ideology were the first I read that engaged Marx as a problem of social form and are among those I return to most regularly (alongside Nicole Pepperell’s unpublished and spellbinding dissertation “Disassembling Capital”). In terms of historiography, I read Constantin Fasolt’s The Limits of History as an undergraduate some fifteen years ago and I am still within the way it poses history as a religious ritual. I also have very worn copies of John Miller Chernoff’s African Rhythms and African Sensibilities and Ashis Nandy’s The Intimate Enemy but those are stories for another day.
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?
Saidiya Hartman’s “critical fabulation” in Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments seems to me a most explosive experiment in composing a distinct method that stays attuned to the violence historiography, and the theories and methods that subtend it, forecloses. She finds laboratories of freedom in poetics, in the mass, in the riot, in being undone, in the art of living, and does so while ceding almost nothing to the spectacle made of black sociality and sexuality. It is hard to imagine a more definitive revaluation of writing, history, and form in the last years.
I beg forgiveness on a second book “of the moment” because I lack a certain wisdom—I tend to appreciate things that are either past or not yet here. I will say I’m excited about a number of books in progress or soon to be released from Denise Ferreira da Silva, Parisa Vaziri, Rei Terada, Linette Park, Patrice D. Douglass, Nick Nesbitt, Amaryah Shaye Armstrong, and Emmanuel Saboro, among others.
Roberto Sirvent is editor of the Black Agenda Report Book Forum.