Crisis, Conversion, Critique, or, Practicing Black Study Now: Against the Natural and the New

Race, Racism, Symposia

For it is only through understanding black culture as worthy of attention that we can feel it as worthy of enjoyment.

1. Crisis

24 years ago, Hortense Spillers “The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual: A Post-Date” was published as a critical musing on the condition of what she calls “the black creative intellectual” in, not only the academy, but the black life-world of the mid-90’s. Taking up Harold Cruse’s magisterial work, The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, Spillers wrestles with the enduring challenge of the book while providing a tour through the crises that imprint themselves upon her historical moment in 1994, living in the wake of the Reagan and Bush administrations, the crack epidemic, the acceleration of neoliberal administrative protocols within the university, and the managerial class of black (male) intellectual “leaders”.

Spillers, with her characteristic perspective, deftly links the crises of the moment to the crisis of the intellectual.

Distracted … by false or secondary issues, yielding apparently little resistance to the sound intrusion of market imperatives on the entire intellectual object, including that of African American studies, today’s black creative intellectual lends herself/himself-like candy being taken from a child-to the mighty seductions of publicity and the “pinup,” rather like what an editor of Lingua Franca only half-jokingly dubbed, once upon a time, the “African American du jour.” Might it be useful, then, to suggest that before the black creative intellectual can “heal” her people, she must consider to what extent she must “heal” herself, and that before the black creative intellectual can offer a salvific program against crack and crack-up, she is called upon to consider what immediate conversion she must herself undergo? And is it too much to imagine that what is wrong with “the community” is wrong with oneself? And furthermore, could one submit that the black creative intellectual, like the black musician whom she so admires, has an “object” in fact, but that she is not always interested in what it is? (Spillers 1994, 73-74)

Spillers re-introduces an ethical injunction, here, arguing that before the black creative intellectual is able to “offer a salvific program” against the social ills that impinge upon black life, she must reflect on the extent to which her own self is affected by the strictures of her contemporary social and political situation. What endures in Cruse’s challenge, Spillers continues, is the urgency with which he inhabits not only his moment, but his situation as a black creative intellectual. In the “startling ethical laxity” of Spillers’ intellectual contemporaries (of which we now belong), she links the loss of black people under the thumb of white supremacist violence and its “arts and stratagems of destruction” to the loss of “our customary discourses of the moral and ethical quickening, with its evocative lament, its vision of the redemptive possibility, the old faiths that could move a mountain, or so one believed”. Where once these discourses stood as effective signs, they “all mark the lost love-object now” (Spillers 1994, 74).

Here, Spillers perceives a critical shift that pervades our contemporary moment 24 years after the essay’s emergence. We live now with a more deeply entrenched loss of potency in “discourses of the moral and ethical quickening” and their ability to evoke lament, envision possibilities, and shore up a powerful faith “that could move a mountain, or so one believed.” Situating the moral and ethical quickening as a lost love-object now, Spillers raises an incisive and dangerous question for the black creative intellectual who takes up the questions of political theology. For, what can the political and theological be in a time not only when these discourses have lost their love-object, and so lost their edge, but it is increasingly becoming clear just how much these materials were always in need of extensive retooling in order to speak to black life and death?

If an unshakeable melancholy seems to tinge Spillers’ questioning her, it is all the more necessary to keep reading. For, in the next sentence, Spillers argues for understanding the situation of crisis as an occasion for a reparation that occurs, not through a recuperation of the lost love-object, but making the fact of that loss the site from which one works for the sake of the communal and individual I that blackness marks. Indeed, Spillers continues,

Certain fatalism need not be the outcome; instead, we are called upon to restitute the centrality of Cruse’s interrogation-what is the work of the black creative intellectual?-for all we know now?

The italicized question for all we know now? suggests Spillers own emphasis inflecting Cruse’s question, drawing our attention, calling us to ask: What do we know now?

If the crisis of the negro intellectual endures as a question, it is precisely because we live in times of perpetual crisis. The 24-hour news cycle and spectacles of encroaching disaster—natural, financial, social—shape our view of what’s going on now. But is this sense of perpetual crisis new? How do we comprehend, how do we perceive, what is going on now? Today, the idea that a national “we” has entered a post-truth era suggests that there was a time when the truth was simply knowable. That there have not been long contests over the media’s ability to tell the truth. Obviously, this framing of the now as “post-truth” is obfuscating to the extent that one can easily look to examples now and in black history (Ida B. Well’s anti-lynching journalism, for instance, or the founding of the Crisis magazine, to name two better-known examples) where black political struggle is concerned about the the question of what knowledge is, and to what extent the mainstream (read: white) media can do justice to the reality that shapes black life. To be sure, my argument is not that we can’t outline shifts in how truth and fact get expressed as reasonable and justifiable. It is not even that we can’t say for certain that something has shifted in a cultural common sense. Still, I am locating the continuing challenge of Spillers’ “for all we know now?” in the questions it opens regarding the relationship between cultural production and the production of knowledge now.

2. Conversion

The production of knowledge is always, but especially in times of crisis, political. Comments on the contemporary situation are routed through material channels that are controlled and managed by conflicting interests. What gets constructed as legitimate knowledge often depends on which channels readers and consumers trust to fund their knowledge. But, there’s also the question of a financial trust, the economic certainty that backs certain voices and divests from or antagonizes others in order to ensure the legitimacy of its well managed perspectives. The rise of a narrative of “fake-news” and “post-truth” does signal something—some diverging senses of legitimacy within a liberal project. Yet reporting on this conflict in liberalism’s sense of knowledge production is often staged between the common sense folk wisdom of a white working class and the common sense of an elite, educated, class of isolated white liberals. Of course, the reality that Trump’s supporters are largely based in middle class and wealthy white communities falls out of such a narrative (and the media’s surprise that Aaron Schlossberg is a well educated and wealthy racist Trump supporter is revealing of just how much that reality cannot be confronted). But in order to produce the now as a moment of “post-truth” and “fake-news” that the “backwards” white people are falling for illustrates the extent to which the investigation of conflicting white publics must be narrated as a newthing. An unforeseen fracture that has traumatized the very core of the nation’s perception of itself.

In this sense, perception of the now is often managed by narrating the now as a new moment. This new moment is at once radically different from the past and nostalgic for the past it produces to justify itself. We can see this in liberal and conservative versions. The liberal justification of its #resistance while simultaneously pining for the good old days when George W. Bush was president. The conservative justification of egregiously explicit support of white supremacist agendas that are anti-black, not to mention a litany of other phobias (xeno-, homo-, islamo, etc.,) is predicated on the greatness of the past that was lost but can be recovered with a wall or a tax cut for the rich or if millenials would stop being snowflakes, or if men were still men and women were still women. The new is thus mobilized to naturalize the desired past as containing a common sense that either is lost or was uncontested.

By collapsing a diffuse array of relations to power into a “we” who is now living in a new “post-truth” moment serves to naturalize a hermeneutic conflict that is centered on white people, narrating this internal conflict as a national shift. That the non-white “we” who resides in the United States must live in a society where conflicts between white liberals and white conservatives affect the well being of everybody else, speaks to the intensity with which white domination pervades out society and, as such, is necessarily underconsidered in mainstream media. But the production of a national shift that is predicated primarily on a conflict between competing forms of white governance also highlights the remainders of the now that get left out of these narratives in order to produce a sense of coherence—in order to naturalize the management of the new(s).

Through these practices of naturalization and the narration of the new(s), moments of crisis are converted into a common sense that obfuscates rearrangements of power by naturalizing such rearrangments as the product of “the people”. Stuart Hall, in an essay on Gramsci’s insights for a neoliberal society, outlines how part of neoliberalism’s emergence in Britain was due to the cultural work of producing neoliberalism as a common sense that appeared “natural” to the “people”.

The Christian tinge to this conversion of crisis into new orders of management is highlighted in an essay on Malcolm X and Jacob Taubes by Daniel Barber. Outlining the ways that Christian conversion, which we might also call supersessionism, operates to enclose the now through narrations of the new, Barber also shows the Secular’s inheritance of a Christian logic of conversion. The repetition of this narrative of conversion renders the management of the now by the new (and we might think about the debates between good news and fake-news as a conflict in white management of the news) a critical question for a black political theology and black creative intellectuals in general. It seems pertinent to note that culturally recognizable notions of “black people” are not immune to such naturalizing efforts. One way such conversion of crisis operates today is to appropriate black culture and black intellectual capital for its own purposes, making neoliberal common sense appear natural to black culture and black culture appear as natural to neoliberal projects of capture and enclosure, democracy and freedom.

In what sense, then, can we can understand Spillers’ call for the black creative intellectual’s restition of an interrogation to relate to conversion as given by the Christianized world and its inheritance by the secular? ON my reading, Spillers’ call for black intellctual interrogation can only be legible in the new world as a deconversion from faith in the white world’s neoliberal common sense. Rather than an acceptance of the way things are, an enclosure of the imagination within the strictures of the status quo, Spillers takes stock of the now, refusing to shy away from the anti-black structures of the world and its violent affects on the formation of black people. But understanding Spillers’ ethical injunction also requires that one keeps reading as she determines that is precisely from this site, from one’s own situation in the mire of the now, that a radical critique of the self and the sovereign can occur. It is only through critical reflection on how one’s own situation indexes something crucial about the web of sovereignties which shape one’s self and situation that one can perceive the governance of common sense that undergirds the new and erases the now. In undertaking a black critique, then, one’s self is a site for the individual and communal work. But such work is not predicated on a use of the self that recapitulates blackness as a being for. Instead, it is the careful honing of one’s objectification by white governance against its sovereign structure of governance, being re-formed as an instrument against that which obfuscates the perception of a blackness ungoverned by the common sense of the new or the news.

3. Critique

With the release of Marvel’s Black Panther, directed by Ryan Coogler, a curious call to suspend criticism was raised from black and non-black people. This was to be a moment of unprecedented representation, of unabashed black joy. To be critical of the movie and its narrative was to refuse to make space wherein a black and non-black public could suspend criticism of blackness and simply enjoy the movie, celebrating black filmic representation at an unprecedented level.

The question such a call raises for me is two fold. First, is there a difference between criticism of blackness that re-entrenches anti-blackness and criticism of blackness that is rooted in studying blackness for itself? And second, how is enjoyment here predicated on the idea of pure consumption, where what we consume is understood as either the pinnacle of our self-determination or unable to touch our selves? Is it possible to consume visions of the new and the now without one’s imagination being shaped by them in some capacity? And if such purity is possible, is it desirable? If an inescapable aspect of being in a white supremacist society is that its common sense is operative at the very structural level—is already in the water—in what sense can there be safety or joy in pretending that is not the case? If enjoyment is not possible without such suspension of critique, if it is not possible from where we are situated now, for all that we know now, on what basis does one found a project of black study? Or is black study understood as antithetical to black joy?

I take suspension of critique to be different from a call for care in criticism. Such a call encourages thoughtfulness, attentiveness to the work one is engaging, to how what is absent from or present in the film speaks, and encourages self-reflection about one’s own assumptions and situation and how that plays with the film to create openings for meanings. Rather than a pure focus on the audience and reception of the film or the film itself, rather than a pure focus on the social and political situation, it is in the interplay of all these webs of identity that one studies, watches, reads, is joyful. Here, subjecting the interaction of these various strands in the social to critical attention is not meant to sever the possibility of enjoyment from the film, but is precisely what makes enjoyment, one’s sense of actively practicing joy, possible.

To separate the practice of joy and enjoyment from the practice of black study, though, is to cut the meaning of something like black joy or black study off at the root. For it is only through understanding black culture as worthy of attention that we can feel it as worthy of enjoyment. And such enjoyment, against a white supremacist society that regularly indicts black culture and black people as mindless, easily consumable, subject to thoughtless critique, can only be preserved through the joy of attention which is cultivated through what Christina Sharpe calls practices of care. Living in the wake of the middle passage, both “the wake” and “care” are posited as problems for thought. Sharpe’s work “insists and performs that thinking needs care (‘all thought is Black thought’) and that thinking and care need to stay in the wake.” This refusal to leave the predicament one finds one’s self in, “in the wake,” is also a refusal to withhold care in thought from precisely that predicament. And this care is a practice that must be repeated.

Practicing pleasure, practicing enjoyment, can never be about the escape of blackness’ ethical demand if it is to stay in the wake—an abiding which is different from performing wokeness. It can never be the evasion of one’s self-formation, communal formation, or one’s social and political situation if it is to remain full of care. For, if we practice relating to black culture in a way that suspends our attentive faculties, in what sense are we also practicing, training ourselves for, such suspension in our relation to ourselves and each other? And at what point does that lead, not to care and attention to each other, but to a desire to purely consume each other through a suspension of our critical faculties? To seeking a pure space for pleasure or enjoyment unencumbered by the ethical? And, in what sense is such a suspension of the critical and ethical not precisely the subject formation under which the violation of black people is dependent?

The desire for and practice of rest and pleasure, of self-care and joy, are necessary to making black freedom for individuals, communities, and for forging a black political vision and struggle. But this is precisely why such practices must not be situated in opposition to the critical and the ethical tasks of what Moten and Harney name black study. As Audre Lorde instructs us, desire, joy, and pleasure, must be formulated as practices of care—as practices of carefully attending to one’s self, to one another, to one’s situation. We must not lie about ourselves, each other, or our social and political situation if we are to remain present with each other in a now that is indelibly marked by the wake. Critique, as a practice of black study, must carefully and bravely confront the work of another’s hands as well as the work one must do—in all its ethical and political entanglements—where one is…

For all that we know now.

This essay is indebted to conversations with friends and the work of many people, including Hortense Spillers, Rich Blint, Participants in Unruly Collaborations, Ashon Crawley, Jamall Calloway, Kyle Brooks, Liora O’Donnell Goldensher, Joe Diaz, Carlin Rushing, DJ Hudson, Chelsea Brooke Yarborough, Brandon Maxwell, Tapji Garba, Lucia Hulsether, Sean Capener, Daniel Collucciello Barber, Anthony Paul Smith, Marika Rose, Beatrice Marovich, Alex Dubilet, Jared Rodriguez, Vincent Lloyd, Fred Moten, Stefano Harney, Christina Sharpe, Delores Williams, James Cone, Saidiya Hartman, Stuart Hall, Harold Cruse, Cedric Robinson, Gillian Rose, Michel Foucault, The Black Panther Party, Black Vandy, Black Panther (the film and comic book series), and many many others.

Symposium Essays

Justin E. Crisp

Not Light but Fire

In a white supremacist culture, one crucial precondition of any true and faithful theological speech is repentance. True theology is not light but fire.

Wesley Morris

Prisoners of Politics

Churches are locally oriented and present to the concerns of everyday life in the community. As an institution it has been an organized center of everyday life for its membership.

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