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Afropessimism Forces Us to Rethink Our Most Basic Assumptions About Society

“Afropessimism has one basic object of study … a diagnosis of Black suffering,” says theorist Frank B. Wilderson III.

In the 21st century, what does it mean to be Black in the world? Most of us are familiar with the joyous Black aesthetic expression: “Black is beautiful.” Perhaps you’re also familiar with the radical, revolutionary declaration, “I’m Black and I’m proud!” Indeed, it was in 1969 that the “Godfather of Soul,” James Brown, told us to “Say it Loud.” And everyone around the globe knows about the momentum of the Black Lives Matter Movement (BLM) that emerged as Black people collectively took to the streets protesting systemic racism and police brutality waged against them. Like the civil rights movement, BLM is undergirded by a theme of hope and redemption, which brings back memories of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song,” released in 1980.

But even as many in our communities and our movements continue to be buoyed by these joyous expressions of hope and pride, some Black philosophers are also striving to articulate the bleakest aspects of Black experience as shaped by life in a society where Blackness is unrelentingly cast as a site of the “nonhuman,” and there is no redemption for Black people. In the past, I have assumed that the opposite of being racially Black is to be racially white, but Afropessimists like Frank B. Wilderson III challenge us to face the ways in which dominant white society insists that the opposite of being racially Black is actually to be human.

What if the historical trajectory of Black life is, in many ways, one of social death and gratuitous violence? What if the murder of George Floyd was the result of civil society’s demand for the brutalization of Black bodies? What if to be Black today is in some sense to be the slave? If all of this is arguably true, then Black studies/Africana studies, colonialism/ post-colonialism, queer studies and the humanities, more generally, must be radically rethought.

To think through these incredibly important issues, I spoke with prominent theorist Frank B. Wilderson III, who argues that Blackness (being Black) constitutes a fundamental antagonism vis-à-vis civil society. It is this fundamental antagonism that the critical framework of Afropessimism interprets as a necessary feature of Black life. Wilderson, an award-winning author and a leading voice within Afropessimism, is Chancellor’s Professor of African American Studies at University of California Irvine. He was one of two Americans to hold elected office in the African National Congress and was a cadre in the underground. Wilderson’s most recent book, Afropessimism, was longlisted for the National Book Award.

George Yancy: The framework of Afropessimism challenges many disciplinary assumptions within Black Studies or Africana Studies. I’m thinking here of basic political, social and metaphysical assumptions regarding Black humanity, concepts of Black redemption, Black freedom and Black inclusivity within civil society. In fact, Afropessimism forces us to rethink what constitutes the subject matter of what we study when referring to Black life, Black humanity, Black existence. I see Afropessimism as forcing various Black disciplinary orientations to rethink their conceptual and normative frames of reference, even if they disagree with it. My contributions to Africana philosophy, critical philosophy of race, critical whiteness studies and critical phenomenology, often resonate (or so I’m told) with what I would call an Afropessimist conceptual and affective register. The Black body, as I have argued within the corpus of my own work (especially within my book Black Bodies, White Gazes), constitutes the site of ontological nullification, the ersatz and the opposite of the “human” (read: white). These are important and weighty claims. I conceptualize my Blackness as a site of the to-be-killed, a process of waiting to-be-killed by the white state. There are times when being alive feels like a temporary reprieve. The Black body, though, while waiting to-be-killed physically, also suffers from a form of social death vis-à-vis its dehumanization, its abject status. Yet, the Black body is both paradoxically nugatory (or inconsequential) and necessary to the functional normativity of whiteness. I have also come to see the truth that Black degradation is bottomless, and anti-Black violence is gratuitous. It seems to me that your understanding of pessimism within Afropessimism is more of a form of realism. That’s where I want to begin. Talk about how Afropessimism is a form of realism. For example, how does Afropessimism understand the murder of George Floyd by the white state?

Frank B. Wilderson III: Thank you, George. I think what I’d like to do is first ask you what you mean by realism.

Fair enough. I’m not using realism as a philosophical position within the history of Western philosophy. Hence, I’m not using it within the context of debates with idealism, where the assumption is that what constitutes ultimate reality is a mental construct as opposed to the realist claim that material objects exist independently of the mind. So, for me, realism, as I’m using it, doesn’t fall within the philosophical realist and idealist binary. When I think about Afropessimism as embodying a form of realism, I mean that it doesn’t avoid the nitty-gritty, everyday reality of anti-Black violence perpetrated against Black people. In this way, I think of Afropessimism as non-evasive when it comes to the constant pain, suffering and cruelty that Black people experience in an anti-Black world. Afropessimism refuses to let us (as Black people) forget just how dire our situation is, just how incredibly anti-Black the world is. That is what I mean by Afropessimism as a form of realism.

Yes. I think that’s a good point but first I’d like to give a little bit of background to readers about how this all started. Afropessimism is, in my view, more of an ear trumpet than a set of new discoveries. In other words, Afropessimism has one basic object of study, one destination, which is a diagnosis of Black suffering. Unlike Marxism, post-colonialism or feminism, etc., in Afropessimism there exists only a descriptive intervention, not a prescriptive intervention. Afropessimism doesn’t answer Vladimir Lenin’s question, “What is to be done?” That is because Blackness is this site of destruction of cosmological proportions — rather than, say, the economic destruction embodied in the proletariat.

In the humanities, suffering has been theorized through two urtexts: The first urtext comprises the archive of Marxism, and its theorization of a structural antagonism between the haves and have-nots. The second urtext comprises the archive of psychoanalysis, which is to say that the world is essentially out of joint due, not to the economic order of capitalism, but to the patriarchal order of Oedipus. These are not two diagnostic interventions that seek to reform society. They start with the premise that civil society and the state are always already unethical. The goal, ultimately, is to undo civil society and undo the state rather than to find ways to improve upon it. That’s a revolutionary project.

Afropessimism shares their revolutionary (rather than reformist) sensibility that civil society and the state are, a priori, unethical. However, the way that psychoanalysis describes suffering, which is to say that the essential paradigm of suffering is elaborated by a patriarchal order, and the way that Marxism describes suffering, which is to say that the essential paradigm of suffering is elaborated by an economic order, are important but inessential paradigms of suffering for Black people.

One of the first principles of Afropessimism is that Blackness and slaveness are coterminous. Blackness is a paradigmatic position, which comes into being 1,300 years ago when the Arab world and the Chinese and the Iranians and Moroccan Jews make a kind of global consensus that the people south of the Sahara and north of Cape Town are people void of relationality; they are dishonored in their being, which means they did not perform transgressions to make them dishonored; and, that their flesh is available to the whims of others. And this comes out of, as many of your readers may know, Orlando Patterson’s 1982 recalibration of what it means to be a slave.

Most scholars, prior to 1982, had described slavery as bondage, and being whipped and forced to labor without wages. But in his book, Slavery and Social Death, Patterson argues that those are simply examples of what it means to live experientially as a slave. But if we hope to understand slavery as a relational dynamic, as opposed to reportage of lived experience, then we have to understand slavery’s constituent elements. What does a slave (a Black person) in 1850 chopping cotton have in common with a slave (a Black person) today in an expensive Bentley?

Patterson gives us the three constituent elements of slavery; elements which, for Afropessimism, are paradigmatically transhistorical: natal alienation (or genealogical isolation), general dishonor and openness to naked/gratuitous violence. Natal alienation or genealogical isolation means that it doesn’t matter that the slave believes he, she or they have a brother or a sister or mother or father, what matters is that the paradigm recognizes no capacity for relationality in the slave. General dishonor means that the slave cannot act in a dishonorable way because the slave is dishonored a priori in their flesh. This is different than [non-Black] Chicanos, Asians, the working class, women, who can transgress the rules of their oppression. Black people cannot transgress. We are always already transgressive. And, finally, there is naked or gratuitous violence: the slave is open to violence and/or accumulation for someone else’s pleasure. This is comprehensive vulnerability, because the slave is not an object of violence based upon their transgression. The slave is always already, as Saidiya Hartman would say, an extension of the master’s prerogative. (That is where the violence is manifest even when no injury is visible.)

Now, once we began to deepen the theorization of those constituent elements, we began to realize two things. One, every Black person in the world is an Afropessimist at some point of the day. It’s just that psychically it’s hard to endure the knowledge that my flesh is a compost heap of nutrients for everyone else’s existence. Paradoxically, Blackness embodies the absence of capacity. This absence vouchsafes the presence that is the relational capacity for the human. That’s hard to endure and contemplate every waking moment. Before 625 CE, there were no Black people. There were Maasai, Kikuyu, the Buganda, etc. They became Black through the imposition of social death, but Blackness did not have a prior plenitude of subjectivity and relationality. Blackness is elaborated simultaneously with social death. When the anti-Black world is destroyed, there will still be people like you and me, just as there were prior to 625, but they will not be Black. There will be a new epistemological order. Just like there were not working-class people all the time. A worker is a paradigmatic position that is no more than 400 years old. Workers did not exist before that. And so, the most difficult challenge for Black Studies, as you point out in your question, is also the most difficult challenge for the humanities, writ large, as well as for multiracial social movements.

The argument that Afropessimism forces everyone to address, is that in order to establish, fortify and extend the constituent elements of human subjectivity, there must exist (in the psychic and material room) a sentient being without access to those constituent elements of human subjectivity. Someone must be socially dead. Universal humanity cannot exist. Semiotics teaches us that that would mean the word human would have no meaning if every sentient being were human. Life requires death for conceptual coherence.

Given what I’ve said, the murder of George Floyd should not be seen as a form of discrimination, but as a ritual, like a therapeutic act which secures the psychic health of humanity by saying, “Look, this could happen to humans, like Latinx people or non-Black women. But we would have to perceive transgression in the way they respond to their paradigms of oppression for it to happen — their deaths are not gratuitous but contingent upon their (perceived) transgressions.” Blackness, however, is an embodied transgression, not a performative one. Embodied transgression cannot be reconciled with embodied contingency. Blackness lets the human say, “I am degraded, but not a priori, I’m still human,” because Black people are not dehumanized. Blackness has no prior human status of which slavery robbed it. If Black became human, human would have no meaning.

And so, unfortunately, George Floyd was murdered by the white state, as you say, but I would say that George Floyd was also murdered by people of color who are oppressed by white supremacy and who, simultaneously, secure their status as humans (however much degraded) by anti-Blackness. The Asian cop, Tou Thao, who stood and watched the white cop, Derek Chauvin, kneel on him is undoubtedly a victim of white supremacy (perhaps even in his precinct), but he is also a beneficiary of the psychic fruits of the murder. The white cop performed a psychic form of therapy for both Asians and whites, the humanity writ large.

If I’m reading you correctly, civil society is made possible through anti-Blackness. The daunting part is that civil society, as we know it, along with what you see as the Human, must be undone, overthrown and deracinated if we are to gesture toward something that isn’t based upon anti-Blackness. How does one begin to undo civil society?

One has to understand that violence is the sine qua non of civil society. There cannot be civil society prior to an ocean of violence that destroys the subjectivity of one group of people in service of the elaboration of another group. When I was a student of Edward Said’s, in 1989, he made this provocative statement in a seminar: “Social stability is a state of emergency for people of color.” That puts the pin right on it because the media always portrays revolutionaries as violent (and criminalizes that violence), without acknowledging the soup of violence that maintains the so-called peace.

There are a lot of progressives who call themselves nonviolent. Nonsense. Everyone is violent. Everyone’s condition of possibility is either sustained or destroyed through violence. You might not pick up a gun. You might not hit someone. But if you are well off, if you are psychically well off, if you are materially well off, if you are not Black, which is to be well off as a human subject, you are well off because you are fortified and extended through a structural violence that is beyond the imagination.

Afropessimism rigorously theorizes violence from an ethical (as opposed to moral) orientation. There are ways to start to get to the end of your question — How does one undo civil society? — if one understands that when the day of reckoning comes, there will be a situation in which the confrontation will be in the streets, and everyone will have to decide on a side. But what most people do, especially in the United States, is spend our lives trying not to decide. And so, one of the things that one must start to do if one is not Black — because the question how does one undo civil society is different for someone if you’re Black — you have to begin to understand that your life and what has sustained you was a sacred cow, one that you should sacrifice. You can no longer afford sacred cows (i.e., a genuine desire for access to the rights and privileges of civic life). You have to attempt to undo your touchstones of cohesions, both filial (the family or other community into which one was born) and affilial (forms of association that are voluntary) — that which makes you present as a human subject in the world.

What’s scary about this is no one can say, definitively, when/if one has achieved this. Anti-Blackness is a psychodynamic affair. The Black unconscious is as anti-Black as the unconscious of the human. We know this from the work of Frantz Fanon when he’s not trying to be a humanist, when he’s not trying to figure out how he and his white wife come together, which is a laudable question. My wife, Anita, and I confront these issues all the time. And our conversations are richer for Fanon and his work. But Fanon was anxious to reconcile, on an individual basis (one to one) what cannot be reconciled with the epistemological order in which we live and breathe. Westerners are taught that problems come with solutions. Some don’t. But they must still be addressed. So, I find Fanon’s elaboration of the antagonism to be instructive (say in, “The Woman of Color and the White Man” or “The Man of Color and the White Woman”). However, Fanon can go off the rails when offering humanist prescriptions to stop simply exploring the antagonism and try to reconcile it.

Antagonisms, by the very definition of the word, cannot be reconciled through the tools that you have, which are psychoanalysis or sociology or activism. One becomes fantastically hopeful and forgets that anti-Blackness is the sine qua non of those tools. So, you cannot actually think your way to liberation in the episteme in which you live. You just have to have a notion that this episteme didn’t always exist, but it came into existence with a hell of a lot of violence over 1,300 years, and it will leave with that same kind of violence. Now, for non-Black people to fully embrace this they have to understand that that which structures them as non-Black people is the very sine qua non of social death for Black people. In fact, Black people were never, back to what I said about plenitude, “human” to begin with.

But I think that for Black people, the reading of Afropessimists, as well as my book, Afropessimism, will help in a certain way in that one comes to understand, as David Marriott writes, that when I look in the mirror, I see a threat. Not in my conscious mind because my conscious mind might be integrationist like “We’re all just people.” Or my conscious mind might be Afrocentrist like, “I’m Black and I’m proud and I’m Black and I’m beautiful.” You might be seeing that in the mirror, but your unconscious mind is saying, “There you are. There is the imago, a threat, a threat to the world, a threat to yourself.” And as David Marriott has written, your unconscious then works to fortify itself against your own image, fortify your mind against your own image, and to attack oneself constantly, to surveil oneself through the eyes of others constantly.

Now, embarking upon an analysis of that will not alleviate it, but it will help you understand that you didn’t do this to yourself, that the world did this to you. And I think that that can lead to little steps, maybe baby steps, toward freeing of the Black imagination. Freeing the imagination means that I don’t have to feel guilty about the kind of unvarnished hatred that seizes me in the middle of the night, and for which even the left offers me no outlet. I don’t have to feel guilty about hating the police before they do anything to me. I don’t have to feel guilty about hating the country or being mad at the country even though I can have a good job. I think that Afropessimism has shown how the world is sustained through the destruction of Blackness. And if you can absorb that a little bit then your preconscious mind can open, just a little, your unconscious mind indirectly and allow those very, very taboo thoughts to find expression.

There is another daunting feature of Afropessimism. I’ve posed this question to myself. What if the collective mass of Black people in the U.S. began to understand themselves through the lens of Afropessimism? There are times when I’ve wondered whether traditional forms of Black protest, especially as they are often predicated upon inclusion, don’t further strengthen the structures and libidinal economies of anti-Blackness. After all, Black people want recognition, equality and equity, and dignity, and to be allowed to benefit from what “white civil society” has to offer. Yet, there is a way in which our very desire for inclusion means that we desire to be a part of a system from which we are structurally barred, and which would mean our continued social death. Hence, if Black people in the U.S. collectively became Afropessimists, there would be no desire for inclusion, no desire to mimic the false category of the Human, no reason to comply with the parasitic logics of a world whose sense of its own coherence needs Blackness as the abject. I think that this would frighten the hell out of those who instantiate the category of the Human. I think that it would also frighten the hell out of Black people. What do you think?

Yes, and I want to make it clear that I think that this is a beautiful dream that you’ve articulated here — all Black people becoming Afropessimists. I’m not sure what that would look like as a mass movement…. But your question about how Afropessimism might frighten Black people and would frighten everyone else, this whole question, takes me beyond where people like myself and Jared Sexton, Zakiyyah Jackson, Sora Han, Kihana Miraya Ross, Huey Copeland, Connie Wun, Camille Emefa Acey and Amanda Lashaw started back in Berkeley. I know I’ve left someone out and that not everyone agrees on everything, but those are some of the names that stick most profoundly in my mind.

We were critiquing on one side the multiracial coalition that had an unconscious symptomatic knee-jerk response to Black people in the political coalitions of the San Francisco Bay areas, as those Black people articulated the singularity of their suffering. We were critiquing that symptomatic response; and we were critiquing our graduate seminars on Marxism and psychoanalysis because we were seeing that these are really wonderful tools for understanding suffering, but they do not explain the fullness of Black suffering. And so, we were offering a critique, not a blueprint for struggle.

We are now in 2022, almost 25 years later, and Black activists, artists and intellectuals across the globe are thinking through and with Afropessimism — it’s informing their political activism and their art in ways that we couldn’t have imagined, in Berkeley, at the end of the 20th century. No one is more surprised by that than me. So, I’m new to the question you’ve posed. Afropessimism is new to the question. But I do believe that one of the reasons why the massification of Afropessimism into a movement would frighten everyone is because Afropessimism has a critique of the world writ large.

Marxism has a critique of the economic world. Psychoanalysis and feminism have a critique of the filial, oedipal, patriarchal world. All those people suffer contingent violence, all those people suffer dishonor through transgression. Afropessimism has a global critique; one which includes the whitest white supremacist and the people-of-color victims of white supremacy.

Another thing to consider is that the unconscious mind, in everyone, is a rather conservative entity. The unconscious mind desires pleasure at any cost. Anita and I were watching Ryan’s Daughter last night. In that film you can see how unconscious desire ignores or side steps prohibitions set forth by preconscious interest. The preconscious’s rules regarding marriage, worship and civic order (and here I mean the civic order of Irish Republicans, not British colonialism) collide with the unconscious mind’s quest for gratification. Pleasure is to be conserved at all costs. The unconscious isn’t going to just automatically put itself at risk.

Now, Black people have an unconscious also. But it is an unconscious that is garrisoned by non-Black desire; usurped; overridden by the anti-Black imperative to turn white or disappear. If we ever got to a Black unconscious informed by Afropessimism, wow! That would not mean the end of a political, economic order (capitalism) or the end of an oedipal, filial order (patriarchy). That would mean the end of the order of order. We would be on the cusp not of a crisis, but of an epistemological catastrophe. What I’m trying to say is that on the other side of anti-Blackness people could still live and breathe and have families, but no one in the world can tell you how that would look because Black people exist beyond semiotic logic.