This essay reads Fred Moten’s work as a critique of and creative alternative to Carl Schmitt’s version of “political theology,” by revising the meaning and practice of both the theological and the political.
As God’s sovereignty is said to be displayed by the miracles that rupture the laws of nature, Schmitt argues, so ‘secular’ concepts of sovereignty remain bound to this theological origin: sovereign is “he who decides the exception” (i.e. the authority that claims, declares, and effectively exercises the power to suspend the law). Schmitt’s claim is that every order rests on a decision not on a norm, on faith and action not on law or reason, for norms are founded, and suspended or re-founded, by constitutive actions that signify the sovereignty—preeminent and effectual supremacy—of one power compared to others. Identifying divine power with decision and exception, Schmitt foregrounds what he deemed political capacities for faith, declaration, commitment, and creative action. He thus invests in politics a redemptive meaning, as bearing a generative—divine or sacred—power to interrupt the given or initiate a new order.
For Schmitt, decision and exception manifest the creative power of life resisting the deadening he associates with routinization of law, with market calculations, with bureaucracy, and with the ordinary, say habitual or liturgical, practice of life. A binary of norm and exception, layered over the binary of the profane and sacred, demeans the ordinary as merely rule-bound, whereas redemption is lodged in the extra-ordinary (extra-legal, exception-making, creative) powers and actions that found or rupture rule. As Deism would eliminate miracle from life by making God merely lawful, he argues, so “liberalism” aspires to banish the willfully creative and disruptive agency once identified with the divine, by establishing “the rule of law, not men,” by contract, precedent and deliberation. In contrast, he defends “decision” as the extra-ordinary (miraculous) power that rejuvenates life by exposing the origins of lawfulness in existentially animating faith, commitment, and action.
To the degree that Schmitt identifies this creative power in the state as sovereign, we could say he alienates “life” in a reified “mortal god” rather than invest vitality in the people whose submission empowers it. But his argument has also justified radical and democratic claims to the “counter-sovereignty” exercised by any entity—church, colonized people, indigenous tribe, social movement or political party—that declares exception effectively. In contrast to procedural versions of liberalism and deliberative visions of democracy, Schmitt and his radicalizing interlocutors emphasize the commitment that draws frontiers and entails antagonism, the “enthusiasm” identified with the dogmatic or irrational as religiosity, and a heroized action breaking open routine docility or habitual acquiescence.
At an angle to these arguments is Arendt’s alignment of decision, exception, and miracle in her view of action as ‘natality.” She opposes natality against sovereignty, and insists that freedom requires refusing the dream of sovereignty, whereas Schmitt invokes decision to consolidate it. But consider how they share a structure of exceptionality: political action is aligned with miracle and redemption because it interrupts an ordinary sociality associated with the rule-bound, conformist repetition Arendt calls “behavior.” For students of political theology, deeper than the issue of sovereignty may be this binary between the ordinary and the exceptional.
Black political thought thus bears a complicated relation to Schmitt, his interlocutors, and Arendt. Most obviously, Black political thinkers depict a different liberalism, in relation to white supremacy as indeed political theology in Schmitt’s sense: the sovereignty of the liberal state is founded and repeatedly sustained by declaring and imposing a racial state of exception, by wedding citizenship to whiteness; liberal democracy creates and depends on, and is not only contradicted by, a racialized frontier defined by anti-blackness. American liberal nationalism is thus constituted by a sovereign violence that makes social death, for those marked Black, the condition of life and liberty for those it marks white. As political theology, white supremacy differentiates the damned to produce the saved, imposing non-being to stipulate being. It is the logic of anti-blackness by which the profane or ordinary is demeaned as mere life, negated as non-being, and split off from the redemption of a whiteness produced by sovereign decision and its regenerative violence.
Across this theological frontier, however, those marked by non-being are themselves called to a decision, to take exception to civic or social death as a state of exception. But as James Baldwin argued when he traced how anti-blackness linked Harriet Beecher Stowe’s abolitionism to Richard Wright’s protest novel, the racial state of exception can be refused in various and often tragically self-defeating ways, for the political assumptions and aesthetic practice in protest or abolition politics might not escape, but instead could bespeak and reify the anti-blackness animating white supremacy.
If Black political thought emerges by “taking exception to the racial state of exception” that sustains American liberalism, the question remains, how is exception understood and practiced? Schmitt suggests seeking counter-sovereignty, and in the “argumentative tradition” of Black political thought, it has been imagined variously by those endorsing exit and emigration, by the NOI dream of an autonomous black belt in the south, by cultural nationalists seeking separatism, or by black power theorists and the Black Panther Party advancing anti-colonial projects seeking collective self-determination. But does any counter-sovereignty invert, and so sustain, not only the racialized frontier imposed by anti-blackness, but also deep investment in the grammar of individual and collective subjects conceived as sovereign?
Must Black politics and thought therefore take exception not only to the overtly racialized state of exception constituting liberal nationalism, but also to the ontological assumptions and deep grammar of anti-blackness? If black life is lived in a state of exception, within a structure of antagonism, in the wake of slavery, in ongoing conditions of “social death” that are its afterlife, the question is: what counter-theologies have made ‘taking exception’ meaningful? To pursue one possible answer this question, imagine the idea of counter-theology as the bridge between Baldwin and Fred Moten’s work, imagine versions of prophecy as the means of passage across it, and imagine the meaning and practice of exception as central to that prophecy.
The theological character of Moten’s work appears most clearly in its differences from the “Afro-Pessimism” articulated by Frank Wilderson and Jared Sexton. They depict “anti-blackness” as a “political ontology” that founds the human on stipulating the non-being, and so also the social death, of those marked black. Anti-blackness is an ontology because it defines the conditions of being by stipulating non-being, and yet political because it is historical, a convention that was once and could be otherwise. But because anti-blackness is an ontology, they claim, it precludes any political or theoretical effort to enlarge the category of the human, or the civic membership allied with it, to include those marked as Black; blackness cannot be recuperated as because the human is founded on the equation of blackness and non-being. Afro-Pessimists then make two moves that Moten inflects otherwise.
First, they define blackness only negatively, as the non-being that is the ground of being, so that blackness names only a positionality and constitutive outside impossible to represent, not a cultural identity or history of representations. Second, they literalize and totalize the condition of social death, and withhold any account of how people marked Black nevertheless make life. Insisting on the utter dereliction and exceptionality of black positionality, they explain the failure or limits of reform efforts as inevitably dictated by the “paradigmatic” structure of the modern world. Their narrative is thus eschatological—it requires ‘the end of the world’—but it offers no praxis by which people could prefigure that end; it offers no way to engender another world while in this one. Wilderson and Sexton thus echo Schmitt in requiring a decisive and totalized “event” to overcome the black life ruled—emptied out and negated—by the inescapably gripping structure of anti-blackness as social death. But could the “the fact” or ordinary “lived experience” of blackness be metabolized—resisted, transfigured, dramatized—otherwise?
Moten’s moves co-respond to Afro-pessimist prompts. First, he inhabits the zone of non-being designated by the political ontology of anti-blackness: he “fully accepts the definition of himself as pathological as it is imposed by a world that knows itself through that imposition…This affirmation is a willing or willingness to pay whatever social costs accrue to being black, to inhabiting blackness, to living black social life under the shadow of social death.” But second, as Baldwin argued against Richard Wright, “Blackness is not reducible to its social costs.” Refusing to totalize attributions of deficit, deficiency, or negation, he insists “poverty in the world is manifest in poetic access to what it is of the other world that remains unheard, unnoted, unrecognized in this one. Whatever you call these resources…it remains to consider precisely what it is that the ones who have nothing have.” Channeling the paradox that links Jesus and Marx, he would “occupy nothingness in its fullness,” to stand with those “who have nothing and who, in having nothing, have everything.”
If this move seeks the gifts in nothingness, his next move rejects the negative theology of Afro-pessimists as a mirror of anti-blackness, to instead trans-value the meaning of blackness as signifying dionysian energies of life that he also depicts as an “insistent previousness” bearing the inescapable presence of the maternal. He thus makes blackness accessible to “any who would claim it,” since it animates all of us, but the excess of life over form also defeats any effort to define or capture it, including efforts by those marked Black. Accordingly, he affirms how people marked Black, who were never meant to survive, have drawn from dispossession “socio-poetic” practices by which they not only thrive but prefigure a new world. “Undercommon” practices of mutuality, repair, and creative improvisation thus comprise a “socio-poetic insurgency” that weds “fugitive” sociality and aesthetic form. Refusal of status as self-possessed subjects, once affirmed as a condition of possibility, enables forms of subjectivity, assembly, and creative expression that are at once insurgent and prefigurative. For Moten, “prophecy” names the transfiguration characterizing the socio-poetic practices of this ongoing and vital form of life.
As many commentators have argued, his version of prophecy bespeaks both Black aesthetic (especially music) practice and the Black radical tradition, but I would augment these arguments by putting Moten’s counter-theology in conversation with Nietzsche. For my sense is that anti-blackness and “the ascetic ideal” both name the project—ontological, epistemological, and political—by which Christian religiosity was modernized. And Nietzsche and Moten both seek a critical practice that does not repeat the deepest premises, toxic affects, and disavowed drives of the object it professes to oppose. For if atheist critics of Christianity retained the will to truth animating their hated object, carried its rancor at the injustice of life, and repeated its devaluation of plural perspective, abolitionist critics of anti-blackness may sustain its war on life if their critical negativity devalues its richness and plurality in the name of unconditional truth. In a parallel way, Eve Sedgwick channels Nietzsche on the will to truth, and not only Melanie Klein, by claiming that queer theory mirrored the “paranoid” affect of the homophobia it analyzed. Likewise, Moten sees how Afro-pessimist “critique” repeats the paranoid style of anti-blackness, and empties life of meaning in the name of its truth. As Nietzsche proposed a ‘gay science’ to celebrate both human poesis and the dionysian excess of meaning, and as Sedgwick evoked the reparative to address the toxic affect of a hermeneutics of suspicion, so Moten’s prophecy is an alter-theology that escapes the impasse between the twinned theologies of anti-blackness and Afro-pessimism.
It is a practice of prophecy to enter the zone of non-being, bear witness to the life hidden in death, and testify to the new world it prefigures. Prophecy means standing with “god and the slave” as Frederick Douglass put it, the marked ones exiled from being, and thereby with blackness as (a name for) life’s excessive, generative energy, pathologized, corrected, and “arrested” by the false gods, idolatry, and “imitation of life” once named Babylon. His prophecy stands with the poor, not so much as material deprivation to address by a reformed state, but more as a dispossession that gives access to life, not so much as those excluded by the state, as the stateless exiled in a Babylon doomed to self-destruction. In this sense, Moten’s prophecy evokes not the civic nationalism of the civil rights movement, even in its radically “reconstructionist” moments, but the voices in the canon of black radicalism that would end the nation-state as the vehicle of a modernity built on enslavement. Two features of his prophecy seem notable.
First it rejects the structure of exceptionality—in political theory and in prophecy—that demeans the ordinary—as the site of sin, corruption, or enslavement—in the name of an extra-ordinary overcoming, whether identified with heroic action, revolution, or divine intervention. It is exceptionality that Moten rejects in Kantian or Aristotelian efforts to split the properly political (as a space, activity, or orientation) from its abjected (excessive, savage, slavish, social, heteronomous) others. Schmitt and Arendt disagree about where to locate the political and the miraculous—in sovereign power or non-sovereign action—but both split it off from the ordinary as rule-bound de-vitalization, whereas Moten embraces the ordinary as he re-imagines its character.
Like Michel de Certeau using Wittgenstein to trace the creativity of subalterns who resist and revise the rules and forms of domination, Moten celebrates “the ongoing giving of form we call the informal,” depicting how subalterns create a “regenerative grammar” of life through tacit practices that are not “formally” or organizationally articulated as forms of “rule.” Opposing the Protestant split between the sociality of the liturgical and individualization by the creedal, he invokes jazz to model how entanglement and virtuosity, indebtedness and distinction, are combined. It is such ongoing improvisation that enlivens our practice of life by wedding the aesthetic as form-giving and the social as collaboration.
Unlike the kind of prophecy that lives in the interval between grief and grievance, in the moral-political register animating the civil rights movement, his prophecy lives in the interval between “terror and beauty” or “pain and joy,” as he puts it. Whereas a ‘political’ register risks reifying the incalculable, positing deficiency, and re-inscribing the grammar of possession, he argues, ‘socio-poetic’ prophecy can transfigure the meaning of a traumatic history in ways that are organized by pleasure, not (only) grievance, by the awe-ful sublime not (only) by justice. Black prophecy is thus the vernacular idiom of an “anti-ante-extra-political party,” an ongoing “jam,” not a formal organization. This “socio” is poetic because the informal form-giving of collaboration enacts modes of aesthetic creativity often split off as ‘art’ from ordinary life. His prophecy thus bespeaks aesthetic registers in ordinary (Black) life, but he denies that the aesthetic is redemptive.
“Some may want to invoke the notion of the traumatic event and its repetition to preserve the appeal to the very idea of redress even after it is shown to be impossible. This is the aporia some might think I seek to fill and forget by invoking black art,” as if aesthetic practices can offer the redemption that political practices (of redress) cannot. “But jazz does not disappear the problem; it is the problem.” It performs “no healing [of trauma] but a perpetual undoing,” an “unfolding” and “rewinding” of “rapture and wound.” For Moten, “the problem” is irremediable suffering, and the rancor that weds people to it, but also the ways that poesis, to make suffering meaningful, can “arrest” the generativity of life.
These are the two faces of one problem, also at issue in political theology, because efforts to resolve suffering (to explain and remedy it) generate forms of meaning (metaphysics or rationalism, grammars of the subject, theories of justice, and narratives of redress) that disavow the dionysian blackness of life. Rather than “disappear” the twinned problems of suffering and the forms by which we render it meaningful, collaborative improvisation “is the problem,” at once inhabiting, dramatizing, and sustaining it, rather than resolving it. For Moten, jazz ensemble and social improvisation, at once aesthetic and social, “hold” unspeakable suffering as an impasse to inhabit, and do so in ways that also “hold” (accept and support) the perspectives, drives, and virtuosities of players whose striving to transfigure suffering engenders rather than arrests the generativity of life.
Moten thus aligns prophecy and jazz with the socio-poetic form that Nietzsche called tragedy; indeed Moten’s prophecy is surely born “out of the spirit of music.” An ontology of the Dionysian-as-Blackness means that human beings must give themselves a form and meaning that cannot be inherent in nature or life, even as life exceeds if not defeats every form or meaning. For Nietzsche “the plastic power” of the Apollonian (as the poesis defining justice and creating beauty) is renewed, therefore, by repeated contact with its Dionysian undoing.
Tragedy was thus a civic and aesthetic form, joining assembly and dramatization to “hold” suffering as a condition of vitality, but in Nietzsche’s story, the twinned problem of suffering and aesthetic form was “disappeared” by the Socratic promise that the rational and moral could “correct existence.” Thus could the political become whiteness against pathologized blackness, while those marked Black, hidden in plain sight in a state of exception, “held” the problem of suffering in tragic forms they invented out of the spirit of music. In the wake of that displacement of the dionysian and aesthetic, but inspired by those predecessors, Moten performs a prophecy by which “all those who blackness claims—which is to say all of us” could “hold” (not disappear) the problem of suffering, and undertake (not delegate) its creative transfiguration. His prophetic theology of blackness thus prefigures a new world, a democracy to come.
- In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition (University of Minnesota Press, 2003).
Moten’s Derrida-influenced study of Black aesthetics.
- The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study, with Stefano Harney (Minor Compositions / Autonomedia, 2013).
An influential, short, open-access book exploring what Blackness as fugitivity means and how it can be applied.
- Consent not to be a single being (3 volumes, Duke University Press, 2017-2018)
A collection of Moten’s essays, including critical readings of Black thinkers, writers, and artists.