The Pragmatics of ResistanceFraming Anti-Blackness and the Limits of Political Ontology
This article argues that Frank B. Wilderson’s political ontology can be read as both a critique and a radicalization of Giorgio Agamben’s formal political-ontological framework constructed around the two extreme poles of sovereignty and bare life. Wilderson critiques and expands Agamben’s framework by locating the zero point of political abjection not within bare life, which is still implicated within the ontological zone of Human being by way of an included exclusion, but within Black social death, which is cut off absolutely from Human being. While such a political ontological framework provides an extremely powerful optic for the absolute ontological abjection of Black existence in relation to all other racial positions in the modern West, its absolute prioritization limits the scope of an analysis of power relations that might offer an account of racial positioning that is both broader than and resistant to the political ontology of Western race relations. In conclusion, turning to Fred Moten’s Black optimism and Deleuze’s and Guattari’s account of micropolitics and lines of flight, the article argues for a pragmatics of resistance that finds its practical condition of possibility within [End Page 51] the micropolitical field of power relations that marks an excess to the anti-Black macropolitics of political ontology.
Frank Wilderson, Giorgio Agamben, Fred Moten, political ontology, pragmatics
The Political Ontological Frame and the Zero point of Racial Positioning
Alongside his many roles—whether revolutionary or academic—Frank B. Wilderson III is an ontologist. More specifically, he is an ontologist of Blackness. Wilderson understands the question of Black being not only as the question of Black studies, but also the question of the social and political arrangement of modernity itself: “what is a black? A subject? An object? A former slave? A slave? The relational status, or lack thereof, of Black subjectivity (subjectivity under erasure) haunts black studies as a field just at [sic] it haunts the socius” (Wilderson 2010, xi). An ontology of Blackness, moreover, gets to the heart of the ethico-political effects of the modern West’s political ontology, which is also to say that it gets to the heart of the law’s operation of ordering and policing the world’s hierarchy of being. For Wilderson, the political stakes of the question of Black being revolve around two fundamental questions: “What does it mean to suffer?” and “How does one become free of suffering?” (ibid., 126). Though he poses both questions as central to the task of getting at the essence of Black being in the modern world, he focuses overwhelmingly on the former question, leaving the latter suspended as an unimaginable and impossible question within the political ontological frame.
The working assumption in Wilderson’s work is that Black ontology is, in fact, “a nonontology” that frames Blackness as the non-Humanity against which all Human life distinguishes itself (ibid., 5). Blackness, then, is the absolute zero point of racialized existence, a position that marks the bottom end of an extreme ontological polarity of white and black that structures the political ontology of the West. If Blackness occupies the bottom of the polarity, then Whiteness is at the top; if Blackness signals non- Humanity, “Whiteness is the most impeccable embodiment of what it means to be Human” (ibid., 25). The ontological irreconcilability between White and Black, or Master and Slave, is what Wilderson calls an antagonism: “an irreconcilable struggle between entities, or positions, the resolution of which is not dialectical but entails the obliteration of one of [End Page 52] the positions” (ibid., 5).1 Antagonisms are contrasted with conflicts, which involve “a rubric of problems that can be posed and conceptually solved” (ibid.). Conflicts involve the loss or alienation of something—Humanity, citizenship, subjectivity, et cetera—and therefore involve the possibility that what is lost or alienated can be recovered. The difference between an antagonism and a conflict, furthermore, is the difference between two distinct types of violence. Antagonisms involve “gratuitous violence,” or “violence that constitutes Black being rather than acting upon it” (ibid., 126). Gratuitous violence positions the Black in an antagonistic relation with Humanity, or “life itself” (ibid., 55). Conflicts, on the other hand, involve “contingent violence,” or violence that is enacted upon another Human being. In contrast, Wilderson argues that Black being has no existence prior to violence, and therefore possesses nothing that can be recovered or resolved. Blackness exists within the structure of Master/Slave precisely as an ontological position within a political structure that always already and irreversibly determines the Black, in the words of Hortense Spillers, as a “being for the captor” (Spillers 1987, 67).
In perhaps one of the most striking and unsettling passages in Red, White, and Black, Wilderson takes Fanon’s reflections on the difference between Jewish suffering and Black suffering and makes a striking comparison between the events of the Holocaust and the Middle Passage that gets to the core of the absolute antagonism between Blackness and all other ontological positions within the world:
Jews went into Auschwitz and came out as Jews. Africans went into the ships and came out as Blacks. The former is a Human holocaust; the latter is a Human and a metaphysical holocaust. That is why it makes little sense to attempt analogy: the Jews have the dead (the Muselmann) among them; the dead have the Blacks among them(Wilderson 2010, 38).
This quotation comes at the end of a brief critique of Giorgio Agamben, whose own political ontology is also centered on an extreme binary distinction between ontological positions. There are two angles from which Wilderson critiques Agamben’s ontology of suffering. First, he takes issue with Agamben’s characterization of Auschwitz as “something so unprecedented that one tries to make it comprehensible by bringing it back to categories that are both extreme and absolutely familiar: life and death, [End Page 53] dignity and indignity” (Agamben 1999, 81–82). Auschwitz, Wilderson notes, is not so unprecedented for those that have the middle passage or the Native American genocide as their frame of reference.2 This is obvious enough, although bracketed or simply ignored for the most part in contemporary critical theory. Second, and more important for Wilderson’s ontology, is the Fanonian critique of Agamben’s (implicit) assumption that the Holocaust is an example of an antagonism between the Nazis and the Jews, a paradigmatic example of the relationship between absolute sovereignty and bare life.
The critique is subtle while at the same time devastating, and it is hard to see on the surface.3 As is well known, Agamben’s political ontology is structured around the two poles of sovereign power and bare life that work as the ends of a formal and paradoxical juridical-political order in which both are simultaneously included and excluded: bare life is inscribed in the law by the fact that it is abandoned of its protection and sovereign power establishes the law through extra-legal means (i.e., the state of exception). Agamben argues that the political ontology of the West (of which he finds an origin in the ancient Greeks that travels unbroken into the present) has been and continues to be defined around this originary and fundamental binary distinction between bare life (zoe) and political life (bios) that provides the conceptual frame through which sovereign power is possible. The state of exception, which Agamben argues is the original means of abandoning and binding life in relation to the law (Agamben 2005, 1), constitutes a juridical-political sphere (the polis) against which certain life is excluded from the law’s jurisdiction while at the same time being paradoxically included within it.
I include this brief summary of Agamben’s ontological structure of sovereignty and bare life in order to show its structural and formal similarity with Wilderson’s ontology, also structured around two extreme poles that provide negative images of one another. However, Wilderson pushes Agamben’s structure deeper still and radicalizes it by negating altogether the included exclusion that keeps bare life implicated in Human being. In this sense, the difference between Agamben and Wilderson is precisely the difference between Wilderson’s notion of a conflict and that of an antagonism. This can be a rather hard distinction to swallow, as it is not the general experience of suffering that is at stake, a potential experience shared across all racial positions, but rather the relation itself between Black being and all other (non-black/Human) being. This is made clear [End Page 54] with Wilderson’s evocation of Agamben’s reflections on the Muselmann, the name Jewish concentration camp prisoners gave to those who had succumbed to a condition that could only be described as the threshold of Human life’s conversion to death. The Muselmann functions for Agamben as modernity’s paradigmatic representation of bare life, the figure at the core of the camp that serves as its “limit figure” in which “all morality and humanity themselves are called into question” (Agamben 1999, 63). Agamben describes the Muselmann,
he whom ‘no one wants to see,’ and who is inscribed in every testimony as a lacuna—wavers without finding a definite position. . . . In one case, he appears as the non-living, as the being whose life is not truly life; in the other, as he whose death cannot be called death, but only the production of a corpse—the inscription of life in a dead area and, in death, of a living area. . . . The Muselmann is the non-human who obstinately appears as human; he is the human that cannot be told apart from the inhuman(ibid., 81–82).
The seeming parallels with Wilderson’s social death should be obvious, and, indeed, racial identity is certainly on Agamben’s radar when he is discussing the Muselmann, although in a very Eurocentric historical sense and, in the end, in a problematic way that “transcends race” (ibid., 85).4 Auschwitz, Agamben argues, is a culminating moment where the biopolitics of race reaches its limit point. Following Foucault’s theory of biopolitical racism laid out in his College de France lectures Society Must Be Defended (Foucault 2007), he discusses how race functions as the means through which states mark biological caesuras within populations. He argues that the Muselmann is the end of a long line of caesuras that marks the limit of life’s reduction to the uttermost threshold of death. Agamben notes that “biopolitical caesuras are essentially mobile, and in each case they isolate a further zone in the biological continuum, a zone which corresponds to a process of increasing Entwurdigung and degradation” (Agamben 1999, 85). The camp is where the Muselmann emerges as the limit to this process, where the link between the zone of political life and bare life is finally exhausted to the point that caesuras are no longer possible. The Muselmann is the end of a process of violence that converts a Human being as indistinguishable from non-Human being. [End Page 55]
Wilderson refuses this process to Black being. As a correction to the mistake of equating the Nazi-Jewish relation as a structural antagonism, rather than as part of an inter-European “family history” (Fanon 2008, 95), he notes that “Fanon returns the Jew to his or her rightful position—a position within civil society animated by an ensemble of Human contents” (Wilderson 2010, 36). For Wilderson, Agamben fails to understand the nature of the political constitution of Blackness through gratuitous violence, and so, he does not go far enough. Wilderson’s political ontology, then, is a radicalization of Agamben’s basic structure that digs down to another level beneath the ontological nadir of bare life: social death. Rather than sovereign power and bare life, the opposing poles really consist of Master (which can be understood as a name for the absolute sovereign) and Slave/social death. Within Agamben’s formal structure of included exclusions, bare life, despite its exclusion under the ban, remains inscribed within political life. Bare life is always implicated, even in its exclusion, within sovereignty. As Agamben says in the introduction of Homo Sacer, “it will be necessary to reconsider the sense of the Aristotelian definition of the polis as the opposition between life (zēn) and good life (eu zēn). The opposition is, in fact, at the same time an implication of the first in the second, of bare life in politically qualified life” (Agamben 1998, 11). Because of this, bare life’s banishment from the political realm can never be complete or absolute. As long as bare life remains implicated in political life, it will always remain included within the zone of Human being, even if only at its very threshold. Such necessary incompletion is why bare life and sovereignty are held together around a conflict and not an antagonism. Social death, then, is the absolute nothingness on which bare life is distinguished as included in the structure of the law, even if by way of an exclusion. Social death, to be sure, remains connected as one side of a binary distinction between Human life and Blackness. However, unlike bare life, social death is absolutely excluded, a priori, from Human life itself; it is a political status of a being that is always already dead even in relation to bare life. Social death, then, is the absolute exclusion that allows for bare life to be recognized as an included exclusion.
Political Ontology and the Limitation of Social Analysis and Legitimate Praxis
Wilderson’s critique of Agamben is certainly correct within the specific framework of a political ontology of racial positioning. His description of anti-Black antagonism shows a powerful macropolitical sedimentation of [End Page 56] Black suffering in which Black bodies are ontologically frozen into (non-) beings that stand in absolute political distinction from those “who do not magnetize bullets” (Wilderson 2010, 80). In the same framework, Jared Sexton, whose work is very close to Wilderson’s, is also right when he shows how biopolitical thought—specifically the Agambenian form centered on questions of sovereignty—and its variant of “necropolitics” found in Mbembe has so often run aground on the figure of the slave (see Sexton 2010).5 Locating the reality of anti-Blackness wholly within this account of political ontology does provide an undeniably effective analysis of its violence and sedimentation over the modern world as a whole. However, in terms of a general structure, I understand Wilderson’s (and Sexton’s) political ontology to remain tied in form to Agamben’s even as it seemingly discounts it and therefore remains bound to some of the problems and limitations that beset such a formal structure, as I’ll discuss in a moment. Despite the critique of Agamben’s ontological blind spots regarding the extent to which Black suffering is non-analogous to non-black suffering, as I’ve tried to show, Wilderson keeps the basic contours of Agamben’s ontological structure in place, maintaining a formal political ontology that expands the bottom end of the binary structure so as to locate an absolute zero-point of political abjection within Black social death. To be clear, this is not to say that the difference between the content and historicity of Wilderson’s social death and Agamben’s bare life does not have profound implications for how political ontology is conceived or how questions of suffering and freedom are posed. Nor is it to say that a congruence of formal structure linking Agamben and Wilderson should mean that their respective projects are not radically differentiated and perhaps even opposed in terms of their broader implications and revelations. Rather, what I want to focus on is how the absolute prioritization of a formal ontological framework of autonomous and irreconcilable spheres of positionality—however descriptively or epistemologically accurate in terms of a regime of ontology and its corresponding macropolitics of anti-Blackness—ends up limiting a whole range of possible avenues of analysis that have their proper site within what Deleuze and Guattari describe as the micropolitical. The issue here is the distinction between the macropolitical (molar) and the micropolitical (molecular) fields of organization and becoming. Wilderson and Afro-pessimism in general privilege the macropolitical field in which Blackness is always already sedimented and rigidified into a political onto-logical position that prohibits movement and the possibility of what Fred Moten calls “fugitivity.” The absolute privileging of the macropolitical as [End Page 57] the frame of analysis tends to bracket or overshadow the fact that “every politics is simultaneously a macropolitics and a micropolitics (Deleuze and Guattari 1987, 213). Where the macropolitical is structured around a politics of molarisation that immunizes itself from the threat of contingency and disruption, the micropolitical names the field in which local and singular points of connection produce the conditions for “lines of flight, which are molecular” (ibid., 216). The micropolitical field is where movement and resistance happens against or in excess of the macropolitical in ways not reducible to the kind of formal binary organization that Agamben and Wilderson’s political ontology prioritizes. Such resistance is not necessarily positive or emancipatory, as lines of flight name a contingency that always poses the risk that whatever develops can become “capable of the worst” (ibid., 205). However, within this contingency is also the possibility of creative lines and deterritorializations that provide possible means of positive escape from macropolitical molarisations.
Focusing on Wilderson, his absolute prioritization of a political onto-logical structure in which the law relegates Black being into the singular position of social death happens, I contend, at the expense of two significant things that I am hesitant to bracket for the sake of prioritizing political ontology as the sole frame of reference for both analyzing anti-Black racism and thinking resistance within the racialized world. First, it short-circuits an analysis of power that might reveal not only how the practices, forms, and apparatuses of anti-Black racism have historically developed, changed, and reassembled/reterritorialized in relation to state power, national identity, philosophical discourse, biological discourse, political discourse, and so on—changes that, despite Wilderson’s claim that focusing on these things only “mystify” the question of ontology (Wilderson 2010, 10), surely have implications for how racial positioning is both thought and resisted in differing historical and socio-political contexts. To the extent that Blackness equals a singular ontological position within a macropolitical structure of antagonism, there is almost no room to bring in the spectrum and flow of social difference and contingency that no doubt spans across Black identity as a legitimate issue of analysis and as a site/sight for the possibility of a range of resisting practices. This bracketing of difference leads him to make some rather sweeping and opaquely abstract claims. For example, discussing a main character’s abortion in a prison cell in the 1976 film Bush Mama, Wilderson says, “Dorothy will abort her baby at the clinic or on the floor of her prison cell, not because she fights for—and either wins [End Page 58] or loses—the right to do so, but because she is one of 35 million accumulated and fungible (owned and exchangeable) objects living among 230 million subjects—which is to say, her will is always already subsumed by the will of civil society” (Wilderson 2010, 128, italics mine). What I want to press here is how Wilderson’s statement, made in the sole frame of a totalizing political ontology overshadowing all other levels of sociality, flattens out the social difference within, and even the possibility of, a micropolitical social field of 35 million Black people living in the United States. Such a flattening reduces the optic of anti-Black racism as well as Black sociality to the frame of political ontology where Blackness remains stuck in a singular position of abjection. The result is a severe analytical limitation in terms of the way Blackness (as well as other racial positions) exists across an extremely wide field of sociality that is comprised of differing intensities of forces and relational modes between various institutional, political, socio-economic, religious, sexual, and other social conjunctures. Within Wilderson’s political ontological frame, it seems that these conjunctures are excluded—or at least bracketed—as having any bearing at all on how anti-Black power functions and is resisted across highly differentiated contexts. There is only the binary ontological distinction of Black and Human being; only a macropolitics of sedimented abjection.
Furthermore, arriving at the second analytical expense of Wilderson’s prioritization of political ontology, I suggest that such a flattening of the social field of Blackness rigidly delimits what counts as legitimate political resistance. If the framework for thinking resistance and the possibility of creating another world is reduced to rigid ontological positions defined by the absolute power of the law, and if Black existence is understood only as ontologically fixed at the extreme zero point of social death without recourse to anything within its own position qua Blackness, then there is not much room for strategizing or even imagining resistance to anti-Blackness that is not wholly limited to expressions and events of radically apocalyptic political violence: the law is either destroyed entirely, or there is no freedom. This is not to say that I am necessarily against radical political violence or its use as an effective tactic. Nor is to say that I think the law should be left unchallenged in its total operation, but rather that there might be other and more pragmatically oriented practices of resistance that do not necessarily have the absolute destruction of the law as their immediate aim that should count as genuine resistance to anti-Blackness. For Wilderson, like Agamben, anything less than an absolute overturning [End Page 59] of the order of things, the violent destruction and annihilation of the full structure of antagonisms, is deemed as “[having nothing] to do with Black liberation” (quoted in Zug 2010). Of course, the desire for the absolute overturning of the currently existing world, the decisive end of the existing world and the arrival of a new world in which “Blacks do not magnetize bullets” should be absolutely affirmed. Further, the severity and gratuitous nature of the macropolitics of anti-Blackness in relation to the possibility of a movement towards freedom should not be bracketed or displaced for the sake of appealing to any non-Black grammar of exploitation or alienation (Wilderson 2010, 142). The question I want to pose, however, is how the insistence on the absolute priority of framing this world within a rigid structure of formal ontological positions can only revert to what amounts to a kind of negative theological and eschatological blank horizon in which actually existing social sites and modes of resisting praxis are displaced and devalued by notions of whatever it is that might arrive from beyond.
It seems that Wilderson, again, is close to Agamben on this point, whose ontological structure also severely delimits what might count as genuine resistance to the regime of sovereignty. As Dominick LaCapra points out regarding the possibility of liberation outside of Agamben’s formal ontological structure of bare life and sovereignty,
A further enigmatic conjunction in Agamben is between pure possibility and the reduction of being to mere or naked life, for it is the emergence of mere naked life in accomplished nihilism that simultaneously generates, as a kind of miraculous antibody or creation ex nihilo, pure possibility or utterly blank utopianism not limited by the constraints of the past or by normative structures of any sort.
With life’s ontological reduction to the abjection of bare life or social death, the only possible way out, it seems, is the impossible possibility of what Agamben refers to as the “suspension of the suspension,” the laying aside of the distinction between bare life and political life, the “Shabbat of both animal and man” (Agamben 2003, 92). It is in this sense that Agamben offers, again in the words of LaCapra, a “negative theology in extremis . . . an empty utopianism of pure, unlimited possibility” (LaCapra 2009, 166). The result is a discounting and devaluing of other, perhaps more pragmatic and less eschatological, practices of resistance. With the “all or nothing” [End Page 60] approach that posits anything less than the absolute suspension of the current state of things as unable to address the violence and abjection of bare life, there is not much left in which to appeal than a kind of apocalyptic, messianic, and contentless eschatological future space defined by whatever this world is not.
The Biopolitical Frame, Paraontology, and the Pragmatics of Resistance
As I’ve argued, Wilderson’s flattening of Black social heterogeneity and the narrowing of any possibility of resistance outside the total apocalyptic destruction of the existing world is a result of his political ontology and macropolitics of racial positions revolving around the formal poles of Master/Human and social death. The delimitation of social and political possibility happens both in terms of Black and non-Black resistance to the structure of the racialized world. Of course, I do not want to argue for a coalition politics or any kind of reconciliatory framework that would find a solution to anti-Blackness in some form of liberal multiculturalism or “colorblindness” that ignores the real and particular violence of white antagonism. I do, however, want to argue for the sheer possibility of opening or breaking through the closure(s), of lines of flight that mark a multiplicity of encounters and possibilities between forces, technologies, bodies, and what Foucault calls dispositifs that run across varying positions and social sites that are not wholly reducible to fixed ontological positions and which potentially provide connections and flows that break through to an outside of political ontological sedimentation.
Focusing on how the dispositifs of biopolitical forms of governance—as opposed to the legal and formal ontological structure of sovereignty—take into account “processes of life” as the basis for governance, Foucault theorizes what he calls the “aleatory” body that is the target of biopower and exists prior to any imposition of governance or domination. Appealing to the “freedom” of the aleatory body is not some kind of idealized notion of the body that ignores the macropolitical fact of Black suffering’s undeniable gratuitous nature. This is not an appeal to what Sexton calls the “in spite of the terror” argument, where notions of Black freedom are understood merely as a kind of concession to the deeper realities at hand (Sexton 2010, 35). Rather, it is to start with the basic fact of the material body in space and time and the idea that “resistance comes first” (Foucault 1997, 167). [End Page 61] This point is particularly salient within the biopolitical frame because, as Deleuze puts it, “when power becomes biopower resistance becomes the power of life, a vital power that cannot be confined within species, environment or the paths of a particular diagram” (Deleuze 1988, 92). In other words, resistance is the micropolitical force of life that can never be fully confined or contained within a political ontological frame (or diagram) of antagonisms.6
In terms of Wilderson’s ontology of social positioning, we might say, following Foucault and Deleuze into Fred Moten’s Black optimism,7 that Black (aleatory) life always already precedes the gratuitous violence of an antagonism. Blackness, then, is not wholly reducible to a political ontological position, but rather is the movement prior to and against the imposing force of any violent constitution—or, as Nathanial Mackey says, that “insistent previousness evading each and every natal occasion” (Mackey 1986, 34). Even though an antagonism functions as the political ontological constitution of a Black being as socially dead in relation to civil society, there is still an even deeper level that precedes ontological constitution itself: the movement and resistance of Black life.8 In In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition, Moten makes inseparable Blackness and resistance with this provocative opening sentence: “the history of blackness is a testament to the fact that objects can and do resist” (Moten 2003, 1). Flowing in the vein of Adorno’s anti-identitarian negative dialectics and its prioritization of the object, Moten reads the history of Blackness, which for him is nothing other than a history of certain performativity as improvisation, as a history of the object’s absolute objection to the capture of identity, the fugitive drive towards freedom where an untraceable, stateless, and ungoverned life of “improvisational immanence” is always becoming (ibid., 255n1). Not ignoring or bracketing the problem of political ontological antagonism (although he does reject describing it in terms of social death), he nevertheless opens the frame of analysis and social possibility to the aleatory field of life itself, or, micropolitics. Tracing the Black radical tradition through everything from its poetry to its music to its banal everydayness, Moten shows Blackness as a counter-force sparked into movement by the imposing and regulating force of anti-Black power. In critical yet sympathetic opposition to Wilderson and other Afro-pessimists, Moten rejects the notion that a full analysis of Blackness should be reduced to the imposition of social death. Or, to put it another way, Moten rejects the notion that Blackness is reduced to a fixed ontological position within a macropolitics that has no recourse to [End Page 62] forms of life that might resist and evade the imposition of an antagonism. Rather, Blackness is a counter-force to ontology itself. As he puts it,
blackness [is not (just)] ontologically prior to the logistic and regulative power that is supposed to have brought it into existence but . . . blackness is prior to ontology; or in a slight variation of what [Nahum] Chandler would say, blackness is the anoriginal displacement of ontology, that it is ontology’s anti- and ante-foundation, ontology’s underground, the irreparable disturbance of ontology’s time and space.(Moten 2014, 739)
Here, Moten is riffing on Chandler’s idea of “paraontology,” which is in specific distinction from political ontology. Paraontology, as Moten describes it, is “the transformative pressure blackness puts on philosophical concepts, categories, and methods” (Moten 2008, 215n3). Rather than an account of being that seeks to uncover an essence or totalizing account of a particular social or political position, paraontology describes the mode of being that is always already resisting the imposing logic of (political) ontology. Chandler articulates this phenomenon through Du Bois’ double consciousness, honing in on the “in between” of its double identity. As he says,
”between” would delimit any simple notion of its spatiality or presupposed relationality. It would instead accede to the most general disruption of boundaries. . . . “[B]etween” dissipates any simple notion of inside and outside, of above and below. . . . Du Bois’s inscription may be understood to name the opening of the sense of space, of spaciality, rather than confirm it.
Chandler is describing the way Blackness—in all of its social scope and complexity—overflows or breaks open the boundaries of any formal imposition, the way Blackness cannot be reduced to a frame of abjection or the irreconcilable position of an antagonism. From this perspective, Blackness is a rhizome, a dynamic, creative, and desiring counter-force in which lines of flight present possible modes of freedom and sociality in excess to political ontological positioning. As a paraontological phenomenon, Chandler and Moten understand Blackness as a unique and specific exertion within modernity—which might also be called the historical regime of racial political ontology—that challenges every schema of formalization and [End Page 63] positional fixity. In this way, from this vantage, the history of Blackness is read as a history of a certain performativity of the drive towards a freedom not determined by the terms or boundaries of ontology, as a history of the object’s absolute objection to the macropolitical capture of identity. This paraontological movement of Black fugitivity, as Moten has coined it, calls into question the framing of Blackness wholly within a political ontology that seeks to index and describe Black life in terms of pure abjection.
Again, Moten and Chandler do not in any way downplay the abjection to which Blackness is given in the modern world. Indeed, Moten considers his project and that of Afro-pessimism as two sides of a mutual project where “Black optimism and Afro-pessimism are asymptotic” (Moten 2014, 778). Yet, by insisting on the possibilities of Black life within an immanent and micropolitical field of becoming that moves in resistance to a rigid political ontology of social death, Moten taps into something vital that precedes the force of imposition, the force of law, or the force of the structure of White supremacy and its sedimented political ontological order. In this way, he also expands the frame of analysis and praxis so that a much wider field of resources and possibilities are available in terms of a project of liberation that goes beyond the political ontological frame.
This is where I suggest the decentering of political ontology and the inclusion of the Black aleatory body as the site of struggle, evasion, and creation becomes a pragmatic mode of framing the problem and thinking a purely practical politics of both spontaneous creation and a calculated movement against the political ontological regime of anti-Blackness. Although Moten would certainly object to describing this turn by way of a “pragmatic politics,” I suggest that his “Black optimism” and Chandler’s paraontology find congruence with a kind of Foucaultian-Deleuzian pragmatics which, as Paul Patton describes Deleuze’s philosophy, “[enables] a form of description which is immediately practical” and an “ethico-political conception of philosophy as oriented towards the possibility of change” (Patton 2003, 16, 17). From this angle, the accurate representation of an ontological reality, while certainly necessary and crucial to the task of naming the full scope of the problem and thinking a way forward, does not take precedence over the task of creating new concepts and lines of flight that should be judged on their effectiveness not in terms of properly representing an ontological problem, but in terms of their concrete effects within a wide field of contexts, specific socio-political problems, and conjunctures. As Deleuze and Guattari describe how pragmatics marks a study attuned to the complexity, [End Page 64] contingency, and potential danger that defines the micropolitical, “the study of the dangers of each line is the object of pragmatics or schizoanalysis, to the extent that it undertakes not to represent, interpret, or symbolize, but only to make maps and draw lines, marking their mixtures as well as their distinctions” (Deleuze and Guattari 1987, 227). Pragmatics, in this way, is all about drawing lines and making maps against macropolitical sedimentations that lead somewhere, that create something new.
Such pragmatic orientation is especially pertinent in the contemporary biopolitical frame as Foucault understands it. As I’ve already described, Foucault’s biopolitics is premised on the idea that when politics takes the biological body as its primary aim and object, as opposed to sovereign power’s object of the legal subject and its constitutive negative, then there is introduced into politics the possibility, as Cary Wolfe notes, “for life to burst through power’s systematic operations in ways that are more and more difficult to anticipate” (Wolfe 2014, 158). The increasing complexity of bodily knowledge and the power that takes this knowledge as its operating principle means that both risk and possibility increase in terms of what the body can do and what can be done to the body. The pragmatic thrust of this emerges when situating it at the level of micropolitics, where, as I’ve been describing, Deleuze and Guattari locate the conditions for lines of flight and where “there is always something that flows or flees, that escapes the binary organizations, the resonance apparatus, and the overcoding machine” (Deleuze and Guattari 1987, 216). Out of any sedimentation there will always be deterritorialization and reterritorialization. The pragmatic possibility or potential, then, is that there is always a simultaneity of the micropolitical and the macropolitical that provides the conditions for an ongoing search for new tactics, orientations, assemblages, vocabularies, and processes of becoming that are aimed practically towards change: “What matters is to break through the wall, even if one has to become-black like John Brown. George Jackson. ‘I may take flight, but all the while I am fleeing, I will be looking for a weapon!” (Deleuze and Guattari 2009, 277). This emphasis on pragmatics and lines of flight—both in potentially negative and positive terms (i.e. in terms of pure contingency)—provides a much more expansive level for framing the problem of anti-Blackness that is not reducible to fixed political ontological positions and the macropolitical plane.
Finally, I suggest this kind of pragmatics is what Moten and Harney describe as “fugitive planning and Black study,” what Jack Halberstam [End Page 65] characterizes simply as “reaching out to find connection” (Moten and Harney 2013, 5). Pragmatics finds a footing in the highly dynamic and shifting terrain of power relations and its multiplicity of conjunctures that signal the condition of movement and connection. It finds its enactment in sites such as “the little Negro’s church and logos and gathering, this gathering in and against the word, alongside and through the word and the world as hold, manger, wilderness, tomb, upper room, and cell” (Moten 2014, 775). Within these and other sites of micropolitical connection and the practices that take place in them, there is flight, resistance, and the creation of something new and productive. The inclusion of these sites and practices within the analytical frame and critique of anti-Blackness provide a much wider set of resources for thinking the complexity of the full scope of the political field that exists in excess to the political ontological frame, and, in the same way, orients the fight against anti-Blackness in practical (though potentially no less revolutionary), rather than apocalyptic, terms. This, I argue, does not have to mitigate or pass over Sexton’s call that “slavery must be theorized maximally if its abolition is to reach the proper level” (Sexton 2011, 33). The maximum theorization of slavery and anti-Blackness does not need be completely hedged in by a political ontological frame. However, analytical expansion beyond the political ontological frame does mean locating a positive emphasis on what Sexton disparagingly identifies as a tendency towards “forces of mitigation that would transform the world through a coalition of a thousand tiny causes” (ibid.). Taking Sexton’s (and Wilderson’s) call of a maximum theorization of slavery/anti-Blackness with full seriousness, I wonder what the proper level of abolition could possibly mean other than a pragmatic coalition—or a micropolitics—of a thousand tiny causes. As I’ve argued, thinking what this might mean would certainly necessitate an expansive analytics of power relations flowing over a highly complex field of forces, intensities, technologies, and dispositifs that together form a micropolitical field far in excess of sovereign power and the political ontological frame. Out of such an analytics, a pragmatics that finds its possibility in the micropolitical field of movement and flight emerges as the condition for an ongoing life of resistance, connection, and a movement toward freedom. [End Page 66]
david kline is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Religion at Rice University. His research addresses issues in political theology, biopolitical thought, and critical race theory.
1. Wilderson’s distinction between antagonisms and conflicts is premised on a “radical return to Fanon” (Wilderson 2010, 31). Fanon is key because his work provides a conceptual foundation for an ontology of Blackness precisely in its relation to Whiteness. In other words, Fanon provides the conceptual scaffolding for an ontology of the Master/Slave relation that sets the structure of ontological racial positions. For Fanon, white is Master, and therefore Black is Slave.
2. Though I am focusing entirely on Wilderson’s ontology of Blackness, in Red, White, and Black, he does discuss extensively the Native American position of an antagonism, of which genocide is the constitutive element of “savage” being. However, according to Wilderson, the Native American still has access to the ontological position of Humanity to the extent that Native Americans potentially share the common grammar of “sovereignty”—in terms of claims to Land and culture—with the colonial Settler. (See Wilderson 2010, 162–88).
3. In his “People of Colorblindness: Notes on the Afterlife of Slavery” Jared Sexton provides insight into why this distinction is so hard to see by those that refuse to acknowledge the constitutive relationship between modernity, anti-blackness, and slavery. (Sexton 2010)
5. Sexton also expands on and outlines how social death and the figure of the slave do not correspond to Agamben’s bare life. However, he still does not move outside of the frame of political ontology, the issue that I am raising in this paper. (Sexton 2010).
6. This is not at all to say that the problem of sovereignty and its relation to the regime of racial political ontology should be downplayed, and as a growing number of scholars have shown, Foucault’s own biopolitical frame remains Eurocentric in problematic ways that exclude Blackness from its purview and therefore important insights about the nature of modernity’s anti-Black ordering of the world. Nevertheless, I suggest the Foucauldian decentering of political ontology as the privileged frame of analysis and the inclusion of the aleatory body as the primary site of struggle and creation allows for a more precise mode of analyzing the full political field— encompassing both the macropolitical and the micropolitical—and thinking praxis within it. For critiques of the erasure of the issue of anti-black racism in Foucault and biopolitical thought, see James 1996, 24–43; Weheliye 2014, 53–73; Chandler 2014, 129–36.
8. Though there is certainly a kind of biological vitalism implicit in this claim, Moten’s understanding of “life” is more akin to Deleuze’s understanding of “a life”: “an immanent life carrying with it the events or singularities that are merely actualized in subjects and objects” (Deleuze 2001, 29). [End Page 67]