restricted access Black Matters
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Black Matters

My particular path into the question posed in this special section—is a moving image an object?—begins with the observation that blackness poses a major problem for the ontological mapping of the object offered by what is increasingly (and capaciously) described as object-oriented philosophy (OOP), in particular its assumptions of a flat ontology equally occupied by subject and object, the assertion of object “speech,” and the idea of the vibrancy of matter.1

Asking whether a moving image is an object is a way to inquire about whether recent philosophical orientations toward the object can be put in dialogue with the “object” of film studies, here understood as the moving image. That said, I am compelled to immediately underline that I come to this question—and every term within it, that is, “object,” “image,” and “movement”—from an already somewhat different angle: my concern is with blackness and the way “black” describes the most perversely sophisticated historical elaboration of the ontology of an object as it occurs in the open and deliberate disavowal of this object’s subjecthood.2 I am going to immediately put my cards on the table, especially since I have realized that the claims that I would normally leave for the conclusion should instead be made at the outset: there is no ontology of the image that can consider itself complete until it has dealt with blackness. There is no ontology of the object that can consider itself complete until it has dealt with black. That is, if ontology cannot account for either one, then it is not flat at all.3 [End Page 246]

I am perfectly aware that the very intelligibility of what I just wrote is dependent on innumerable slippages between blackness and black, slippages that have immense ontological repercussions. In other words, even as I consciously move across several meanings of the words “black” and “blackness” from the (unavoidable, as far as I am concerned) perspective of their racial connotations, the very intervention of this essay as a critique of some aspects of the way OOP conceptualizes the object can only occur by first doing what OOP does, in other words, by suspending these connotations from attaching to these terms.

Let’s try it: what is “black”?

At its simplest, black names a color and, as such, also an image and an object. As a color, black is immediately and inescapably an image—“what distinguishes a color from its image: blue from the image of blue?” asks Akira Lippit in Ex-Cinema.4 The image of blue means “blue” as an object, in this case a visual image. Likewise as a color, “black” is an image that is virtually indistinguishable from the object, even though color more properly inhabits the in-betweenness of subject and object. “Color is not an object out there in space waiting to be named,” writes Bruce R. Smith; instead “it is a phenomenon, an event that happens between an object and a subject.”5 Because of this in-betweenness and the way it complicates the priority of form (and therefore of the line) in Western art, color (and therefore black too) remains a particularly neglected object, one caught in the epistemological prejudice against color itself. As David Batchelor points out in Chromophobia, “If its object were a furry animal, it would be protected by international law. But its object is, it is said, almost nothing, even though it is at the same time a part of almost everything and exists almost everywhere.”6 In this sense black—that is, as a color—is always an image of that to which it is attached.

From an optical standpoint, however, black can also be regarded as the absence of color and therefore arguably also a lack and a nonimage. In this regard, black is immediately both visual and yet also avisual.7

This could/should be simple enough. Yet, it is my contention, as I move from the argument Fred Moten makes in “The Case of Blackness,” that the blackness of black is never purely a chromatic or visual affair but also an ontological one, which supports itself in racial slavery. In...