[The following is a transcript of an in person interview that has been edited for length and citations.]
Lambelet: I want to start with an open ended question that gets to the heart of the symposium: what catastrophe are you trying to narrate? And how are you going about that narration in this piece that you wrote for Political Theology?
Kaplan: The catastrophe that I am concerned with is modernity itself—the particular periodization of which is secondary to the fact of anti-Blackness we find ourselves in. While there is certainly a plurality of catastrophes that unfold within modernity itself, Afropessimism distinguishes between those ontic catastrophes like indigenous genocide or the Shoah and the underlying ontological structure constituted by the advent of Blackness as a racialized ontological category that does not pre-exist its constitutive social death. This distinction is not meant to diminish the severity and the ongoing ramifications of these other catastrophes. Rather, as Frank Wilderson repeatedly returns to in Afropessimism, that there are important differences and there are essential differences. These other catastrophes unfolding within modernity are certainly important, but not essential from a structural analysis of modernity’s “pre-logic” of anti-Blackness.
It is also important to clarify that this distinction is not a value judgment; as Jared Sexton notes, this is not an exercise in “oppression Olympics.” It’s a matter of thinking about the underlying structure and organizing logics of modernity in which anti-Blackness effectively furnishes the grammar for all of these other catastrophes: such as racial capitalism, settler colonialism, and ecological devastation. Sexton has made this point through his immanent critique of the settler colonial paradigm. One can go through racial slavery and think about settler colonialism. But one can’t go through settler colonialism to thinking about racial slavery due to “the Black’s” natal alienation and structural incapacity for sovereignty. The logic of indigeneity itself gains coherence through the Slave’s absolute deracination. In this way, the “narration” of this World-Forming Catastrophe concerns the ways modernity’s ontic-catastrophes all follow from the Slave’s function as, to use Hortense Spillers phrase, “the zero degree of social conceptualization”—which we may recast in terms of conceptualizing catastrophe.
Lambelet: I learned a lot from reading your essay. The intervention I understand you to be making is reading Afropessimism theologically, in other words, engaging some of the theological language that emerges within that discourse. So, you discuss original sin, apocalypse, and eschatology. In this essay, I see your signal intervention is to say that Black Messianism is a key concept or figure that can offer something to this conversation. So I’d love to hear you talk a little bit about what you mean by Black Messianism? How does that index to some of these theological terms that you’re drawing on, especially the apocalyptic or eschatology?
Kaplan: I would make a distinction between the Black messianic and messianism. Among the various ways to articulate this, one could recall the distinction that Jacques Derrida makes between messianicity and messianism. But more precisely, I came to the thought of the Black messianic through my reading of Giorgio Agamben’s The Time That Remains. This encounter happened concurrently with my nascent reading of Afropessimism. I wasn’t explicitly seeking to put them in conversation with one another, but I started to realize certain conceptual resonances that had a specificity to them that didn’t seem superficial to me. Among other things, what struck me in Agamben’s analysis was his emphasis on the singularity of the messianic, and his tying that together with the logic of the remnant coming out of the Hebrew Bible and Paul’s own hermeneutic recapitulation of that text in the wake of the crucifixion. But it’s also precisely through this logic of singularity where the alignment of Blackness and the messianic has little to nothing to do with any given theological economy or even one that is specific to or reducible to the Abrahamic religions. Agamben emphasizes that it’s necessary to excavate these theological signatures to arrive at an adequate means of diagnosis, deconstruction, and ultimately destitution of these paradigms. I wouldn’t presume to say that this move is necessary for elaborating the work that Afropessimism is doing. But I think it certainly helps to be able to bring to the fore these theological dimensions to show how Afropessimism isn’t simply a secular discourse, even while it’s articulating itself within that register.
In this particular essay, I take up the figure of the katechōn from Second Thessalonians—which serves the paradigmatic function of political theology for Carl Schmitt in the form of the State. However, for Afropessimism, the World is the katechōn, rather than a particular institution within it. The language of the katechōn as the “restraining power” facilitates how the structure of anti-Blackness is not only a structure of domination and gratuitous violence, but also the foreclosure of a more radical mode of what Wilderson calls gratuitous freedom—which is precisely freedom from the World. In turn, I think that original sin helps deepen our understanding of and appreciation for the katechōnic function of the World by locating its primary site at the level of the unconscious and libidinal economy of Human parasitism. While the (modern) Human parasites Black incapacity for its own capacities—and this is its original sin—the paradigm of original sin also helps us account for how the Human is incapacitated with respect to gratuitous freedom through this very parasitism that sustains its Being(-in-the-World).
However, this is not to suggest that anti-Black original sin is divinely sanctioned. Rather, this supplementary paradigm facilitates language for thinking about how, for instance, the pessimism and Afropessimism shouldn’t be confused with, say, nihilism, but is in fact a pessimism with regard to the capacities of the Human and the World to actually redress the suffering of Black people and their ontological position as Slaves. By thinking of the pessimism in Afropessimism as diagnostic of the ways in which the World is constituted, I think some of this theological language also helps facilitate a gesture towards the “affirmative” dimensions of Afropessimism’s position: that is, it’s through the position of the Black that a more radical freedom and modes of fidelity can rise. This, in turn, brings us back to my interest in articulating Blackness with the position of the messianic as a way of understanding the antagonism to the World, but in a way that indexes the destituent potentialities of Afropessimism that tend to only come in the form of gestures precisely through the refusal of prescription. Along these lines, I’ve been thinking as of late about how Afropessimism could be read as an apophatic discourse insofar as this refusal of prescription opens a space of negative potentialities that aren’t presently actualizable because of the katechōnic structure of the World.
Lambelet: I’m so glad you took it here because I had a question about this that I’m gonna kind of stumble toward. I think the intervention I understand you to be making by drawing on Afropessimism is in part to reject, building on Wilderson, any restoration or Paradisal return. That’s not a possibility, nor should it be a kind of humanistic aspiration. Both of those avenues of return or aspiration are foreclosed within the world. So you quoted Wilderson saying that Afropessimism is distinct from some other radical paradigms in that it doesn’t offer an alternative worldview.
Yet here, I think you’re moving toward what you’ve called a kind of destituent potentiality within Afropessimism. And I’m very curious about that. How would you articulate what that destituent potentiality is? In an apocalyptic framework, we would say something like: there’s the end of the world, there’s a destruction, certainly, and there’s also a new creation that is coming. The new creation has an organic relation to creation, but it’s also genuinely new.
One of the other contributors to this symposium, eminent scriptural scholar John Collins, makes this intervention. In the wider discourse around the apocalyptic as we currently use it, it’s mostly about destruction. But what Collins wants to say is, at least in its ancient Near Eastern context, there was always this tension between destruction of the world as it is, and hope for a new world to come.
I’m interested to hear whether there is any vestigial language of hope – you haven’t used that language and maybe that’s not the right language to use. But, what is the utopic or the new creation? What is the space that is opened through the critique of the world and the critique of the human within Afropessimism?
Kaplan: I just presented a paper at AAR on apocalypse as another signature of Afropessimism is discourse. One of the important supplements that find in developing an apocalyptic language in Afropessimism’s gesture is not simply the end of the World as it inherits from Aimé Césaire, but also that of revelation: first and foremost a revelation of the structure of anti-Blackness, but also the structure of presupposition of a universal structure of Human sentience. My paper was called “Apocalypse of Blackness: Afropessimist Meditations,” the title of which was inspired the contemporary French philosopher Jean Vioulac’s book, Apocalypse of Truth: Heideggerian Meditations. Vioulac reads apokálupsis (unveiling) against Martin Heidegger’s retrieval of the Ancient Greek term for truth: alētheia (disclosure). While unveiling and disclosure may be colloquially synonymous, Vioulac argues that revelation does not bring something out of the shadows and into visibility; rather, it ruptures the very horizon of phenomenality and brings one into an encounter with the abyssal, with nothingness, and the mystery as the only modalities that can inaugurate a new beginning.
Coming back to the language of creation, I think the emphasis that I’ve become more interested in is the language drawn from Simone Weil of de-creation. The logic of de-creation resonates with a lot of preceding mystical orientations, not least of which include Meister Eckhart and Marguerite Porete, in which the relationship to God is such that the very distinction between creation and the uncreated needs to be collapsed. I think that language is quite resonant and useful for the problematic that Afropessimism is putting forth, because the very conception of the Human or the language of creation itself has become so fundamentally implicated with the logics of anti-Blackness that the hope for a new creation remains inscribed within a logic of redemption that Afropessimism is radically putting in question.
Whatever would come after the end of the world is something that I think Afropessimism would think in the language of invention. And this Fanonian language of invention, as David Marriott singularly theorizes it, is itself fundamentally imbricated with the tabula rasa. What I think this language brings to the fore resonates with what I was speaking about the potential apophatic dimensions of what Afropessimism is (un)doing. Because whatever were to be invented is precisely that which, as Marriott puts it, is radically unwritten.
Accordingly, I think it becomes untenable to retain the language of creation or even the language of Another World from this vantage point, which is precisely how Afropessimism is distinguishing itself from these other radical theories of liberation. What Afropessimism wants to emphasize is that the process of unsaying and unlearning this conceptual language—of the World, of the Human, of Creation—is itself the necessary means for a genuine invention to occur, which we necessarily wouldn’t have the language to describe in advance.
But that’s where I think drawing on some of this theological language is useful for sitting with that refusal. Not only the refusal to name but the emphasis on the impossibility to name. And so even if other work is being done to contemplate and make the space for this kind of couplet of both the rupture and something to come, I think what Afropessimism would insist upon is the refusal to name what is to come as the means of sitting with the interminable Black desire for abolition.
Lambelet: I think that’s probably a great place to leave it. Andrew, thank you so much for this really rich discussion and work. I look forward to reading more.
Kaplan: Thank you, Kyle.