- Of Exorbitance: The Problem of the Negro as a Problem for Thought
For Jacques Derrida, in memoriam1
In a classical philosophical opposition we are not dealing with the peaceful coexistence of a vis-à-vis, but rather with a violent hierarchy. One of the two terms governs the other (axiologically, logically, etc.), or has the upper hand. To deconstruct the opposition, first of all, is to overturn [renverser] the hierarchy at a given moment. To overlook this phase of overturning [phase de renversement] is to forget the conflictual and subordinating structure of the opposition. Therefore one might proceed too quickly to a neutralization that in practice would leave the previous field untouched, leaving one no hold on the previous opposition, thereby preventing any means of intervening in the field effectively. We know what always have been the practical (particularly political) effects of immediately jumping beyond oppositions, and of protests in the simple form of neither this nor that. When I say that this phase is necessary, the word phase is perhaps not the most rigorous one. It is not a question of a chronological phase, a given moment, or a page that one day simply will be turned, in order to go on to other things. The necessity of this phase is structural; it is the necessity of an interminable analysis: the hierarchy of dual oppositions always reestablishes itself . . . [O]n the other hand—to remain in this phase is still to operate on the terrain of and from within the deconstructed system. By means of this double, and precisely stratified, dislodged and dislodging, writing, we must also mark the interval between inversion, which brings low what was high, and [End Page 345] the irruptive emergence of a new “concept,” a concept that can no longer be and never could be, included in the previous regime. If this interval, this biface or bi-phase, can be inscribed only in a bifurcated writing . . . then it can only be marked in what I would call a grouped textual field: in the last analysis it is impossible to point it out, for a unilinear text, or a punctual position, an operation signed by a single author, are all by definition incapable of practicing this interval.2
When speaking of the question of the situation of the Negro American as a matter of thought, we must begin by recognizing the historical problem, or the historical form of the problematization of existence, the kind of problematic, that has organized its emergence and rendered both its necessity and its possibility.3 That problematization is, in a word, since the sixteenth century, the double and reciprocal articulation of the institution of modern slavery and its aftermath, including colonialism, in continental Africa, in the Americas, and in the Caribbean, on the one hand, and the emergence of a global practice of distinction among humans that has come to be placed under the heading of an idea, or concept, of race, on the other.
As much as or more than almost any other social configuration or grouping of peoples in the modern era, this historical situation has posed for Africans, especially of the so-called Diaspora, an exposed or explicit question about the forms of historical existence and the grounds of reflexive identification.
Inheriting or confronting, in any case inhabiting, this situation, African American or Diasporic intellectuals of the United States from Phillis Wheatley, Benjamin Banneker, or Olaudah Equiano of the eighteenth century, including David Walker, Maria Stewart, Frederick Douglass, Frances Harper, or Alexander Crummell of the nineteenth, to W. E. B. Du Bois and Anna Julia Cooper of the turn to the twentieth, for example, elaborated an ensemblic discourse that in each case proposed (albeit in heterogeneous ways, often in the same discourse) the production of a subjectivity, subject position, or profile in discourse that they or later intellectuals, through readings of their work, have marked as Africanist. This question was raised for them not only in terms of their own practices and their own sense of identity or identification, but in terms of the question of the relationship of existence, essence, and identity in general. In the originary passage of [End Page 346...