Unbearable Blackness
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Unbearable Blackness

O, speak obliquely, if at all, of History and its slaves.

—Tisa Bryant, Unexplained Presence

You explain that the political movement gathered beneath the “Black Lives Matter”1 banner has amplified and updated the longstanding demand to end state-sanctioned violence against black people and populations in and beyond the United States. You outline how the eponymous slogan has proliferated over the past year and how it now links, rhetorically if not conceptually, a range of racial justice campaigns across an expansive geography and a complex network of local, state, national, and international organizing efforts. You point to its inscription on posters and placards throughout the visual archive of the demonstrations, ongoing at this writing, following the killing of Michael Brown by Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, on August 9, 2014.

“#BlackLivesMatter is both a call to action and a response to the ways in which our lives have been devalued.” For you to utter this deceptively simple declarative statement amid “an infinite array of dangers” is no mean feat (Hartman, 63). Even as you try to come to terms, impossibly, with the absurdity of the world that this claim indexes, you are still unsure of what is signifying in what you’ve just said. Black Lives Matter: how so and to whom, in what ways and by what means, when and under what conditions, precisely? What, moreover, does it mean to matter at all, much less for life or a life to matter, for lives to matter, let alone for black lives to matter? Do black lives matter only when taken together, or taken apart, or taken apart together? Black lives are (a) strange matter.

You think also, in this moment, about the unspeakable, perhaps unimaginable ways that black lives have been devalued, and you have trouble determining when to start the story—or history or mythology or fable—or how far afield to draw your sphere of concern. Who, after [End Page 159] all, are your people? And, again, did or do those lives have value in the first place? Did or do they not, rather, antagonize value? Can black lives as such be counted and counted on, in or as a form or principle? Are they accountable or are they supernumerary? Add to that the fact that you cannot but wonder about the sort of action that might respond to that devaluing, or originary nonvalue, and to speculate, indeed, about forms of value created or derived otherwise; the value of a color, all color, or the notes of another score. The usual repertoire won’t do.

And what of your allies, coalescing around the matter or mattering of black lives lost or taken, today all clamoring that they are so much with you as to be you too? Which side you are on is easier to assert than to ascertain. Your beautiful statement of a universal particular is turned on its head as the agglutination of the world’s largest particular universal, voiced in radical newspeak. Get out and testify, you think, make it plain. The police are marching with you now as well, expressing sympathy and solidarity with the people, your people, and they are denying their terrible and terrifying social function in the selfsame moment of execution. You are losing track of where policing ends and protesting begins. Get out and clarify, you think, speak on it. Take action. You want to imagine a practice in “the default of the political, in the absence of the rights of man or the assurances of the self-possessed individual, and perhaps even without a ‘person,’ in the usual meaning of the term” (Hartman, 66). You raise the ultrapolitical possibility of a “spooky action at a distance”—think otherworldly, act nonlocally.2

A comrade declares: “Black people in the United States and worldwide are the only people … for whom it is not productive to speak in terms of police brutality.” Not because police brutality as such is not a pervasive problem and a mortal threat, but rather because the reigning political philosophy has been built on fundamental concepts and categories inadequate for the analysis. “The world,” or at least that political world...