In Jordan Peele’s 2017 social thriller, Get Out, a wealthy white family, the Armitage family, has developed an assemblage of techniques (sexuality, romance, kidnapping, psychoanalysis/therapy, surgery…) by which to sink black people into the watery, “dark abyss” of their own minds and bodies. The matriarch of the family, Missy, a psychiatrist, calls this dark abyss the Sunken Place. The principal motivation behind this sunken-placing is the desire of members of the family’s “Order,” which consists of whites and East Asians, to inhabit and control the bodies of the sunken. This inhabitation and control allow members to overcome certain fated dis-/in-abilities. Most prominent among these are erectile dysfunction, blindness, and death.
Dean Armitage, Missy’s husband and a neurosurgeon, understands this overcoming as the Order’s theurgical destiny. “The requirement for spiritual transmutation,” he says, “is the will of a new vessel must sacrifice!” The will and vessel being, of course, the black person and body, personified and embodied in the film by the protagonist, Chris.
Interestingly, the Sunken Place was taken by many on black social media as a place where blackness is lost, and for good reason. But the Sunken Place, or so it seems to me, itself challenges this interpretation. The Sunken Place is not where one becomes un-black, but where one is blackened, or so I will suggest in this essay.
This suggestion is grounded in what we learn if we recognize the Sunken Place as accomplishing a unique mediation of genealogy as philosophical archaeology (Agamben) and genius (Kant). Importantly, this mediation is the means by which the Sunken Place conjures three intimately related “things”: (1) its own philosophical archaeology, (2) a philosophical archaeology of racial blackness, and (3) a 6th century text titled On the Divine and Sacred Art, a commentary on a lost (al)chemical work by Zosimos of Panopolis titled On Work.
Importantly, it is this commentary which not only allows us to recognize the Sunken Place’s conjuration of the former two, but also allows us to speculate that racial blackness is a product (in part, at least) of the history of alchemy, a product of the global socialization of alchemical melanosis (blackening), to be more exact. What this means will have to wait until the end, perhaps unfortunately.
I have divided the essay into three sections. First, a presentation of Agamben’s understanding genealogy. Second, a presentation of Kant’s concept of genius. And third, a presentation of the above-mentioned commentary. I end with a suggestion of the implication of Get Out and the Sunken Place for “scholarship.”
Skip the first two sections if you want. They aren’t necessarily necessary, but are unnecessarily useful…
In The Signature of All Things: On Method, Agamben refashions genealogy as philosophical archaeology, or as “an inquiry into an at once transcendental and paradigmatic dimension, a sort of “historical a priori,” where knowledge finds its condition of possibility.” He qualifies the search for the arche, or “beginning-point,” of knowledge as a “science of signatures.” This science enables us to discern the “sign within a sign” which “indicates, by means of the sign’s making, the code with which [the sign] has to be deciphered.”
A crucial point here is that the very “making” of the sign gives us insight into the code by which the sign can be understood. It is this code which constitutes the transcendental or paradigmatic dimension of the sign, or better and more specifically, of the signifier. Within the theory of signatures as presented by Agamben, the possibility of semiotic reference is conditioned by the signifier also being marked by that which brings it together with a signified, by that which relates the two and establishes the fact of objective reality and meaning: the arche.
In calling the arche, or the beginning-point of the relation between signifier and signified transcendental, Agamben is making use of the Kantian notion of the transcendental (as distinct from the transcendent) as the “fertile bathos of experience.” As such, if what we experience is the realized relation between signifier and signified, an experience which constitutes “knowledge,” then the activity of relating itself takes place “beneath” the threshold of experience.
Agamben suggests that the transcendental dimension that grounds a specific relation of signifier and signified is itself a specific kind of relation. He writes that the dimension is not only transcendental but also paradigmatic. The notion of paradigm is defined by way of the concepts of exemplar and exemplum. A paradigm, he writes, is “not only an exemplar and model, which imposes the constitution of a normal science, but also and above all an exemplum, which allows statements and discursive practices to be gathered into a new intelligible ensemble and in a new problematic context.”
That an arche is at work “beneath” the threshold of the experience of the signifier-signified relation, and that this arche, once discerned though the use of a paradigm, allows the relation to be placed in a “new intelligible ensemble” and “problematic context,” is of crucial importance for understanding philosophical archeology as a science of signatures. Only once the signature has been recognized can the arche at work beneath the threshold of the experience take on a new and instructive meaning.
Also important is Agamben’s notion that signatures function by means of resemblance. He understands resemblances as having to do with analogies and “immaterial similarities” between signs (or more properly, signifiers) and the arche which realizes their relations to specific signifieds.
As can perhaps be anticipated, I propose the Sunken Place as a paradigm which “shifts” or places blackness in a “new intelligible ensemble” and “problematic context.” As I will attempt to show shortly, it produces this shift because it is not only a metaphor for the “system” that sinks black freedom, it itself also clues us in (indicium) to why (and what!) it works as metaphor. It stands in a position of analogical resemblance with that which accounts for or “explains” the meaning of blackness: the transcendental and paradigmatic dimension, historical a priori, the arche, the “fertile bathos.”
Before going to analyze the text which I propose presents a (maybe “the”) historical a priori of blackness (as blackenedness), I want to consider Immanuel Kant’s conception of genius, which shares a striking resemblance with Agamben’s conception of genealogy as philosophical archaeology and a science of signatures.
In Critique of the Power of Judgement, Kant defines genius as “the exemplary originality of the natural endowment of a subject for the free use of his [sic] cognitive faculties.” He continues, writing that the genius can become an “example for other good minds [and give] rise to a school, i.e., methodical instruction in accordance with rules.” What stands out here, of course, is this notion of exemplary originality and its relationship to the emergence of a methodical instruction in accordance with rules or a school. The methodological instruction in accordance with rules is a “paradigm.” Before considering the relationship between that which is exemplarily originality and a paradigm, let me comment on this notion of exemplary originality itself.
One thing to note is that exemplary originality is not only related to the subject’s cognitive faculties, but it is also related to the product of those faculties in their “free use.” In other words, the exemplarily original way in which the artistic subject’s mind works must also become embodied in the artist’s work itself. It must come to be embodied in what Kant calls the “aesthetic idea” of the work, which itself will be exemplarily original. But what exactly is an exemplarily original aesthetic idea?
An aesthetic idea is original insofar as no antecedent rule within the relevant craft can be given to determine how it was possible. Second, the idea is exemplary insofar as, after it has come into being, it can “serve others [as a model], i.e., as a standard or rule for judging.” Moreover, the exemplary original aesthetic idea’s becoming a standard or rule for judging, its becoming a methodical instruction in accordance with rules, means two things.
First, it means that an exemplary original aesthetic idea educates the taste of those who would judge or assess the work. Insofar as the aesthetic idea is exemplarily original, the judges of the work will have to learn, from the work itself, how to assess its relationship to other works within the same craft tradition. Regarding Get Out and the Sunken Place, this tradition is screencraft.
Secondly, becoming a standard or rule for judging means that the aesthetic idea, for other artists who themselves aspire to exemplary originality but who, for whatever reason, aren’t lucky enough to be a “favorite of nature,” becomes something to be imitated. These artists form a school. They attempt, after the (f)act, to extract the rule(s) and method by which the aesthetic idea was produced. If these artists copy “everything, even down to [the deformities] which the genius had to leave in,” then these artists form a school of apes.
But the test of Sunken Place’s genius, I claim, is not so much its relationship to other art, but its relationship to “scholarship,” and primarily scholarship which is concerned with racial blackness. It’s genius, in other words, is determined by its ability to provoke a “paradigm shift” in our study of the meaning and materiality of racial blackness. As mentioned, I think its genius consists in its conjuration of a philosophical archaeology of itself, of racial blackness, and of the 6th century text which allows us to recognize its conjuration of the former two. I turn to the text now.
I quote only a few relevant lines from the On the Divine and Sacred Art. Pseudo-Olympiodorus writes:
“[W]hat we call bodies that are sunk sink into their constitution and are turned into ashes. And this hypostatic body, which they call ‘black lead,’ are the ashes and the residues of Maria [the Hebrew}. Blackening happens because of this. The nature of lead that is drawn down is extracted from the liquid substance, as the divine Zosimus says—he holds fast to the whole truth of the knowledge of god. No longer revealing the invisible cosmos in itself, the soul reveals (itself) differently in another body of silver, and in silver, the fiery blood, that is to say, gold.”
What must be highlighted here is the notion of the production of a hypostatic body (soma hypostatikon) by means of a technique of sinking (kataspao). As hypostatic, the sunken residue/remainder subsists and substands its own transmutation, extraction (ekstrophe), or being-turned-out. What is perhaps most significant, though, is that the production of the sunken, hypostatic body is called melanosis, or blackening.
Yep. The production of this sunken, hypostatic and blackened body resembles the logic and production of the Sunken Place in Get Out. Just as the blackened hypostatic body is produced to support the alchemical transmutation/extraction of a surplus (gold) out of the superfluous (the black hypostatic body/remains), so too is the function of the Sunken in Get Out.
Just as Pseudo-Olympiodorus’ hypostatic body is turned out, so too are the Sunken in Get Out. Only in Get Out the hypostatic body’s being-turned-out is not toward gold, but towards erections, visions, and (of course this is alchemical) immortality.
The exemplary originality of the Sunken Place as an aesthetic idea and signature consists in the fact that it conjures alchemical melanosis as, to use the phrasing of Yvonne Chireau, the “origin of black misfortune.”
It is what gives the metaphor its empirical, experiential, and affective sense, and which allows us to see that the Sunken Place is not where blackness is lost, but where it is found… at least this is the genealogical narrative of black misfortune which has attached itself to me.
And it is merely the hypothesis of a research program, albeit an ambitious one, which would attempt to trace the effective history of alchemy in the material and discursive practices enacted in the emergence of racial blackenedness (note: not blackness) in modernity. And to whatever extent this program might attain the status of “scholarship,” to whatever extent it doesn’t sink into original nonsense, this status and keeping from going under would be granted by genius, only not mine. I myself am only an ape of the school of Sunken Place Studies…