Central to the field of Black studies and the recent subfield of Afropessimism in particular, the keyword “gratuitous violence” signifies the critical attempt by scholars such as Frank Wilderson, Rinaldo Walcott, Christina Sharpe, Patrice Douglass, and Calvin Warren to account for and reckon with issues of slavery, race, and the human. As such, “gratuitous violence” encapsulates the field of Black studies’ oftentimes antagonistic relationship to historiographical and Marxist (amongst other) interpretations of slavery. Whereas historians and Marxist-orientated critics have generally understood (American) slavery as a historically-specific institution premised upon the violent exploitation of Black laborers, these Black studies scholars have understood slavery as the unending historical event when the very ontological category of “Black” laborers or persons was violently created—and continues to be recreated.
The concept of gratuitous violence has understandably been traced to Orlando Patterson’s classic work Slavery and Social Death(1982). In that study, Patterson defines the “constituent elements” of slavery as “the permanent, violent domination of natally alienated and generally dishonored persons,” a definition of slavery neatly summed up in the idea of “social death” (13). Patterson’s analysis of slavery as a system of social death was notable for its opposition to economic interpretations of slavery as primarily an exploitative system of labor. In that regard, gratuitous violence has been employed within the field of Black studies to distinguish between forms of violence: namely, an exploitative violence experienced by persons and a “metaphysical violence” that constitutes existence itself (as discussed in Patrice Douglass and Frank Wilderson’s “The Violence of Presence”).
The work of Patterson, then, is no doubt informative to the field of Black studies; however, his delineation of the totalizing power of the master over the slave arguably does not capture the full range of meanings inherent within the concept of gratuitous violence as employed by Black studies scholars. In particular, the framework of power buttressing Patterson’s idea of social death cannot account for the religio-theological dimensions of the concept of gratuitous violence. As the rest of this essay will explore, a critical relationship exists between how Black studies scholars think about slavery’s violent creation of racialized persons and how theologians think about God’s creation out of the world out of nothing. On one hand, the Christian doctrine of ex nihilo articulates the absolute distinction and unequal relation between God and humanity as characterized by God’s divine goodness, so that the condition of possibility for human existence is the plenitude of God’s benevolence and love. On the other hand, the Black studies’ concept of gratuitous violence articulates the relationship between Black persons and the world (and the status of Black people within the world) as “always already void of relationality,” so that the condition of possibility for Black persons continues to be the violence of racial existence itself (Red, White, and Black, 17). Signifying a critical homology between the fields of Black studies and political theology, gratuitous violence is an important keyword for interrogating how religio-political concepts can afford unique insights into issues of slavery, race, and the human which continue to inform our world today.
As a keyword signifying distinct perspectives of the field of Black studies, gratuitous violence might be seen as a microcosm of an underlying grammar sometimes antagonistic to and incompatible with the grammars of other fields of study. Frank B. Wilderson has referred to this grammar as a “grammar of suffering,” a phrase meant to distinguish between the violence of racial enslavement and other forms of violence (e.g., “exploitation” and “alienation”). An appropriation of Orlando Patterson’s definition of “social death,” Wilderson’s “grammar of suffering” defines the “ontological position” of the Slave—in contradistinction to the ontological position of the Marxian or class “laborer”—as one who is “generally dishonored, perpetually open to gratuitous violence, and void of kinship structure” (Red, White, and Black, 11). Crucially, Patterson sees these “constituent elements” of slavery as confined to the various institutional forms of slavery throughout world history. For Wilderson, however, dishonor, gratuitous violence, and kinlessness continue to formulate in tandem a grammar of suffering which characterizes Black lives even after the institutional dissolution of African-based slavery.
Forging an irrevocable ontological knot between “Slaveness” and “Blackness,” Wilderson pushes Patterson’s notion of social death beyond its historiographical and sociological limits. He revises Patterson’s ideas on the historical violence of enslavement into a radical claim about the transhistorical violence of race or racial being. As a result, gratuitous violence signifies in recent Afropessimistic thought both the historical domination of the master over the slave and the transhistorical existence of Blackness as Slaveness.
Etymologically, then, gratuitous violence means more than the two words within the keyword ostensibly denote. As employed within Patterson’s historiographical and sociological framework, gratuitous violence might be defined somewhat straightforwardly as the “naked” violence the master inflicts against the slave (whether physical, psychological, or symbolic) without warrant. When employed by Wilderson and others, though, gratuitous violence suggests religio-theological notions reminiscent of the Christian doctrine of creatio ex nihilo. As Wilderson asserts: “…modernity marks the emergence of a new ontology because it is an era in which an entire race appears, people who, a priori, that is prior to the contingency of the ‘transgressive act’ (such as losing a war or being convicted of a crime), stand as socially dead in relation to the rest of the world” (Red, White, and Black, 17-18). Wilderson’s use of the terms “a priori” and “contingency” to describe the “appear[ance]” of “an entire race” can be likened to the doctrine of God’s creation of the world “out of nothing.” From that politico-theological purview, gratuitous violence might be understood as a keyword signifying a perversion of creatio ex nihilo, that being racial slavery’s violent creation of Black persons themselves.
Perhaps the central axiom of Christianity, creatio ex nihilo is the cornerstone for other major Christian beliefs. For what one believes about God’s divine creation of the world informs what one believes about God’s transcendental relationship to and providential plan for the world, from the Fall of Man to the Last Judgment. Since its canonical clarification in the early church, then, the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo has continually (re)articulated the distinctiveness of Christianity in opposition to other philosophies, religions, and sciences. As Janet Martin Soskice summarizes, creatio ex nihilo “precipitated a revolution in western metaphysics” (184). This simultaneous centrality within Christianity and antagonism to other belief systems accounts for the important role of creatio ex nihilo as a metaphysical and theological concept within the field of Black studies.
Though implicit within its Judaic beginnings, the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo became an explicit Christian tenet within the Roman world. The early church systematically delineated God’s creation of the world out of nothing in opposition to notions about the eternality of matter. From the philosophical dictum ex nihilo nihil fit (or from nothing, nothing can come), the world either emanates inexorably from God (Neoplatonism) or co-exists eternally with God (Aristotelianism). In opposition to these claims, the early church articulated the creation of the world as a free and intentional act by a selfexistent and eternal Creator and, by consequence, insisted upon the ontological and contingent dependency of creation upon the Creator.
Creatio ex nihilo thus exemplifies a distinctive metaphysical and theological grammar for articulating the relationship between God and the world/humanity and the ontological nature of that relationship. To view the world as created out of nothing is to define creaturely existence as relation to God, a relation defined not by antagonism, rivalry, or dishonor, but divine goodness. Brian D. Robinette explains that in addition to its ostensible moral sense, “divine goodness” refers to the metaphysical sense of God’s transcendent self-sufficiency as Creator whose relationship to creation is “utterly gratuitous,” so that no tyrannical opposition can exist between them (535). Put otherwise, the hierarchal terms of sex, class, and race common to critical theory—e.g., male/female, rich/poor, white/Black—do not apply to God and the world because God and the world do not “coexist” within the same ontological “continuum” (537-38). As John Webster contends, rather than debasing the creature, the “pure non-reciprocal gratuity” of God’s creation of the world designates the infinite worth of creaturely existence in its very sui generis origination from the infinite plenitude of God’s love and generosity (157).
Black studies scholars have employed the notion of gratuitous violence to signify the historical event of racial slavery as a veritable perversion of the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo. If second century theologians defined creaturely existence as originating within and sustained by a relation to God’s divine goodness (existence-as-relation to the divine), Black studies scholars have defined Black existence as originating within and sustained by a perverse relation to the world (existence-as-non-relation to the Human). Rinaldo Walcott thus states that the Middle Passage engendered the very “invention of Black people,” the “metaphysical and ontological transformation that led to Africans entering the holds of ships and disembarking as Black” (52; 57). Following Wilderson, Walcott’s discernment of a “metaphysical” and “ontological” difference between “Africans” and “Black” derives from his claim that the hold of the slave ship “transform[ed]” an indigenous African existence into a socially dead Black existence. Walcott makes clear how the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo makes possible an articulation of a grammar of violence—specifically, the gratuitous violence of racial slavery—not available within prevailing political and historiographical discourses. Whereas other discourses can imagine a violence enacted against or experienced by certain persons, Black studies scholars have appropriated the language of creatio ex nihilo to imagine what Patrice Douglass calls a “metaphysical violence” which “constitutes” and sustains an entire race of persons themselves.
Within the critical purview of such Black studies scholars, God’s creation of the world out of nothing becomes racial slavery’s creation of Blackness as nothing. On one hand, Christian theology imagines the “nothing” out of which the world is created as a “pure negation,” so that creaturely existence is understood as originating and deriving worth from God’s “utter plenitude and sufficiency” (“Love is Also a Lover of Life,” 163). On the other hand, certain Black studies scholars have imagined the “nothing” of Black existence as another type of pure negation, a social death in which Black existence is understood as originating from and having lack of worth due to a perverse relationship to the world. To be “embodied nothing,” Calvin Warren writes, “is to inhabit the void of relationality” within “an antiblack world” (32; 43). In turn, just as God’s creation of the world out of nothing is not simply an event within history but the event of history itself, racial slavery’s creation of Blackness as nothing or non-relation is the event of modernity in which we still live. For Christina Sharpe, the “birth canal of Black women or women who birth blackness…is another kind of domestic Middle Passage,” insofar as both the “belly of the ship” and of Black women “birt[h] blackness (as no/relation)” (74). Sharpe’s designation of Black women’s “birth canal” as symbolically and continuously re-enacting the Middle Passage rejects progressive or redemptive notions of history. Although the institution of slavery has ended, the Middle Passage continues to re-create Blackness as nothing or no relation.
Despite such bleak claims, Black studies scholars also hold on to the prophetic edge of the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo. Inseparable from belief that God created the world out of nothing but God’s own divine goodness is the belief that the world and humanity within it are “fallen” or have been corrupted by sin. The “Fall of Man,” however, is but one chapter in God’s providential story also including God’s reconciliation to humanity through the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus and the ultimate redemption of the world in the last days. Notably, the Black studies scholars explored thus far reject both political ideals of progress and religious narratives of redemption. Yet their rejection of political progress and religious redemption gives way to a radical embracement of a politico-theological prophecy predicated upon the destruction of the world.
Indeed, what is arguably most controversial about the field of Black studies, and the subfield of Afropessimism in particular, is its uncompromising view of the structural role of anti-Black violence in the world. Wilderson asserts that “Human life is dependent on Black death for its existence and for its coherence” (41-42). This perverse relation between anti-Black violence and the Human—the “Human” involving the predominate political, social, national, and religious delineations—is irresolvable. Any solutions resting upon reforming or redeeming the Human are bound to fail and ultimately serve to reinforce the perverse relation between anti-Black violence and the Human.
Instead, Black studies scholars re-think critique beyond the limits of reconciliation, redemption, or even redress. Such “nonnegotiable critique of white supremacy and all its post-Middle Passage legacies” is realized as a politico-theological prophecy based upon an unflinching stance towards the anti-Black world (The Long Emancipation, 91). For Walcott, Blackness “in its most radical livability seeks to reject and rethink the human as a category through which pure radical possibilities for life-making might be available for all of us.” Such “pure radical possibilities” portend nothing else than the end of the world as we know it and a re-imagination of the human as “another life-form altogether” (The Long Emancipation, 72).
David D. Robinette, “The Difference Nothing Makes: Creatio Ex Nihilo, Resurrection, and Divine Gratuity,” Theological Studies 72, no.3 (2011): 525-557.
In his essay, Robinette considers the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo from the perspective of God’s radical transcendence and creation’s utter dependence upon Him. He convincingly argues that such ontological asymmetry does not entail a “relationship of rivalry” but one premised upon God’s divine goodness and generosity.
Janet M. Soskice, “Creatio Ex Nihilo: its Jewish and Christian Foundations,” in Creation and the God of Abraham, ed. David B. Burrell (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 24-39.
In her essay, Soskice provides a useful overview of the history of creatio ex nihilo. She explains how second century rabbis and theologians articulated a unique doctrine in opposition to the claims of Greek philosophy and Gnostic religion.
Rinaldo Walcott, The Long Emancipation: Moving Toward Black Freedom (Durham: Duke University Press, 2021).
A meditation on the problem of “emancipation” in the global history of Black life, The Long Emancipation surveys many of the key issues central to the field of Black studies (such as “Diaspora” and the “Human”). In concise and memorable prose, Walcott interrogates the violence subtending Black existence since the era of racial slavery and imagines the radical “life-forms” that Black existence nonetheless makes possible.
Frank Wilderson, Afropessimism (New York: Liveright Press, 2020).
Incorporating the controversial critical analysis (Red, White, and Black) and personal self-reflection (Incognegro) of his earlier works, Wilderson’s Afropessimism offers a useful overview of his theory of anti-Black violence. The chapters are discontinuously composed of vignettes of memories and criticism, and in totality, they provide a more approachable introduction to Wilderson’s difficult ideas than his previous academic studies.