This blog post is the first in a series of posts examining Frank Wilderson’s Red, White, and Black. The next essay in this series will hopefully address his reading of Jacques Lacan that he undertakes early in the book. This reading is heavily indebted to readings and conversations with others, not to mention debate performances I have witnessed. Special acknowledgments go to Amber Kelsie, Damiyr Davis, Ben Crossan, Shanara Reid-Brinkley, Syndey Pasquinelli, David Herman, Terrell Taylor, and many, many others.
Frank Wilderson opens the first chapter of his study in racism Red, White, and Black: The Structure of Antagonisms in U.S. Cinema at what seems to be a common starting point for many academics, especially those who tend to locate their scholarly conversations in houses that go by various names like “post-structuralism” or the now mostly out of vogue “postmodernism:” the Holocaust. Alighting on the work of Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, whose ruminations on the Muselmann serve as a kind of stand in for Western philosophy’s fixation on the intelligibility of the event of the Holocaust if not, as Wilderson will claim, the intelligibility of the suffering that renders it as a thinkable event. This blog post will interrogate Wilderson’s use of Agamben as a point of departure and argue that contemporary dynamics of international violence suggest a reading of affinity between the two.
Starting at the Holocaust as a point of academic reference enables Wilderson to undermine it by pointing to the ways in which its historical uniqueness should be regarded not as a taken for granted fact but instead as a political status that serves to write over or perhaps frame out other modalities of suffering, especially in the Middle Passage of American slavery and Native American genocide. Why, Wilderson asks, are scholars comfortable with situating the Holocaust as the central tragedy of Western existence when the dynamics at play in Europe from 1939-1945—in which sentient beings were stripped of their humanity, physically segregated, systematically used for labor, and gratuitously murdered for no reason—have been witnessed not only elsewhere but also chronologically earlier? Scholarly uptake of this particular Eurocentrism effects a positioning of “the German/Jewish relation as the sine qua non of structural antagonism, thus allowing political philosophy to attribute ontological—and not just social—significance to the Jewish Holocaust.”
To further unsettle this fixation, Wilderson turns to the work of black theorist/insurrectionist Frantz Fanon, drawing on his description of the Holocaust as a “little family quarrel” to suggest that the Holocaust was a moment when Jewish bodies occupied a position of “Blackness and Redness” rather than heralding the dawning of some new, ontological regime of life management. Key to this analysis is Fanon’s distinction between social and structural versions of violence, which Wilderson frames as the difference between “oppression” and “suffering.” The Black “suffers” while the Jew is “oppressed,” suggesting that suffering functions ontologically to structure reality while oppression is a contingent state of violation that may be recognized and interrupted by actors in civil society. To give one example, today nostalgia reigns supreme for the America of “The Greatest Generation” that is said to have liberated the concentration camps and defeated fascism. Evidence for this is easy enough to find in the rhetorical archive of presidential address given in the conduct of the war on terror, where we find analogies throughout that conflate Al Qaeda with Hitler and robust American citizens with G.I.’s rolling across Western Europe. For Wilderson, the fact that we can mark a starting and stopping point of the Holocaust suggests its social rather than ontological character: no such judgment is yet warranted regarding the treatment of the Black body.
The language of positionality in Wilderson’s reading is a point of interest. How can the Jew, for example, occupy the position of the Black and remain the Jew? As Wilderson argues, “Jews went into Auschwitz and came out as Jews, Africans went into the ships and came out as Blacks.” The structure of his argument indicates that during the Holocaust Jewish people did occupy the same position of abjection, violation, and invisibility that Blacks occupy. No doubt Wilderson’s argument regarding positionality serves as a strong rebuttal to critiques, on both left and right, of typical “identity politics” characteristic of especially the “culture wars” of the 1990’s in America. Multiculturalism, political designs scripted for inclusion, affirmative action, and demands for “positive” representation of Blacks in media and cinema: this conglomeration of social policies all mistake the absence of robust Black participation in civil society to signal a contingent failure of the political regime of liberalism rather than a deeper, structural issue with how a regime of political life actually demands a negation of the sentience of some beings so that others might live in society as what Aristotle called politikon zoon, political life.
Indeed, my reference to Aristotle is no accident given how operative definitions of life circumscribe the political economy of argument circulation. In the same book (The Politics) where he gives this definition of life he also offers a philosophical justification for slavery, in holding that there are simply some beings that are suited to rule and there are other beings that are suited to being ruled. Wilderson would hold that this line of reasoning has yet to be interrupted in the West, and the insistence by many on marking moments of “liberation” like the Civil War, legislation for Civil Rights, and victories in war elides or, to say it more precisely, produces the ontological continuity of existence as a thing possessed by all but Blacks. Perhaps no better example exists in Wilderson’s book than in the introduction where he refers to James Baldwin’s failed friendship with Norman Mailer, who “wrote about ‘the terrible gap between [Norman Mailer’s] life and my own.’” Mean that “His long Paris nights with Mailer bore fruit only to the extent that Mailer was able to say ‘Me, too” in response to Baldwin’s own stories about the depths of his experience of exclusion and abjection in a society constituted by racism.
What Wilderson is suggesting is that ontological violence structures communicative exchanges so that Black arguments never enjoy the force of presumption on their side. I say Black arguments rather than “Black arguments from experience” because I hold that all argumentation is characterized by the argument from experience. The hierarchy of arguments, from best to worst, is not decided upon by some objective external arbiter of rightness and wrongness. Rather, familiarity tethers arguments to subjects, who mistake the inertia of intelligibility for a token of “right” argumentation instead of as a mark of their own ideological affinity for the given performative argumentative practices. Baldwin attempted to traverse the gap between his world and Mailer’s, and failed, repeatedly, because much of what he lived was simply incomprehensible to Mailer. Wilderson holds that racial antagonism structured the gulf between the two in such a way that it cannot properly be called “misunderstanding” but instead should be understood as “incommensurability.” Baldwin came to realize that he was articulating his own existence on a communicative plane that was structured in such a way that only to the extent that his life experiences could be made to conform to existing matrices of intelligibility possessed by White society would his life be recognized.
Where external authority conditions life on that life’s capacity to behave in a manner intelligible to said authority, that life cannot be said to exist except as the conditional fuel for the authority of the community which, by virtue of presumption, stands in judgment of what communicative acts or are not worthy. Civil society’s authority, embodied by those who take its existence for granted in their acts of judgment and communication to judge, comes from a double movement of, “Me too” but mostly, “Not me” that simultaneously confirms the capacity of the mass public to render judgment over the appropriateness of argumentation while at the same time consigning that which is not intelligible i.e. Black argumentation to a separate sphere.
Wilderson’s argument has far reaching implications for those in communication studies who remain interested in rendering accounts of how deliberative practices and institutional action do or do not succeed in achieving certain goals, either thought of in terms of constituting material benchmarks through traditional metrics (legislative change, changes in legal interpretation) or in a more Between Facts and Norms sense of moving the needle in terms of expanding the repertoire of forms and practices of argumentation that civil society is capable of recognizing as “political.” Wilderson has no compunction about aligning himself with the academic movement of what is called Afro-pessimism because in his view, the structural exclusion of the Black from society ensures that efforts at expansionary inclusion emanating from the mass public serve only to confirm the authority of that public to judge while at the same time routinely failing to address the structural conditions of exclusion. I am cheating a bit here by splitting them into two functions, actually. It is really the case that the confirmation of the mass public’s capacity to judge perpetuates the structural conditions of exclusion. Despite Wilderson’s decision to place Giorgio Agamben in his crosshairs in the opening of his book, I believe that Agamben’s account of the distinction between bare life and political life offers an elegant supplement that explains the rhetorical mechanisms for the production of the process Wilderson identifies.
In Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life Agamben outlines his case for how the dispossession of populations comes to function structurally as opposed to contingently. Working from the Aristotelian distinction between life with the capacity for political speech, political life, and life which is incapable of signifying, bare life, Agamben suggests political actors utilize a rhetoric that elevates “the good life,” that is, life which exists above the realm of pure biological existence and into the realm of shared speech, politics. Elevating political life, however, requires that political life be defined against some other version of life, and that other form of life is bare life. Political philosophy has defended Western political institutions on the basis not of their capacity to protect a Hobbesian social contract, that is, the basis to secure bare life, but instead on the basis to provide for the good life. Michel Foucault engineered this turn in thinking politics in The History of Sexuality Vol. 1, where he identified emerging tendencies on the part of the government to rationalize interventions as means of enabling populations not just to live, but also to live well and in a certain way. Such rationales represent racialized thought because they discriminate between various and sundry populations to the extent that some ways of living are valued and prioritized over and above others.
By the time he wrote State of Exception Agamben was applying his thesis to the conduct of internal politics and especially the war on terror. It should be noted that he does not think the war on terror is a unique example of the politicization of bare life, only that it is one among many available in what he says is now, following Walter Benjamin, a state of permanent exception in which populations find themselves “bare” and thus vulnerable to management, dispossession, and extermination at the hands of the sovereign. These bodies suffer the violence of sovereignty, included only to feel its force, but are otherwise excluded from participation. In this way a simple topographical distinction between inside and outside is not enough, but a threshold, “a zone of indifference, where inside and outside do not exclude each other but rather blur with each other.”
Let me give an example of this process. Many of George W. Bush’s speeches in the wake of September 11th spoke of the Al Qaeda and the nations that harbored them as barbaric threats to Western civilization. At the same time that these populations were described in these terms, America continued to conduct a campaign of vigilant military attack on these nations, attacks which created and intensified numerous political and infrastructural deficiencies faced by countries which were often already struggling with developmental deficits that indexed not only the legacy of colonialism but also their position on the periphery rather than center of the global order. Existing cultural differences, especially religious and ethnic, were played up in media accounts of the condition’s facing women in nations like Afghanistan. At the same time that political rhetoric emanating from the West suggested that these nations were politically bereft and thus in need of Western military intervention, sanctions, international scorn, and that military intervention worked to verify the rhetorical account of these nations as backwards and outside of the world of Western “political” life. They were inside sovereignty only to the extent that they faced the exercise of sovereign violence but constitutively excluded in all other ways.
So the question: would Wilderson recognize the strife between Western Europe and the populations in the East as a “family quarrel” following Fanon’s analysis of the Holocaust? Would the position of Afghanistan be contingent in his view, i.e. occupying a position of the Black but only until there comes to be a recognition of something shared between Afghanistan and the West? Would this recognition depend upon what Wilderson, building on the work of Sadiya Hartman, would call the “fungibility” of the idea of violence as applied to the black body? Those who are both geographically segregated from the West and also marked ethnically will probably not be permitted to symbolically “enter” the West anytime soon. And if the soft, permanent electronic euthanasia of drone strikes is any indicator, civil society’s capacity to perceive the bodies of those like the son of Anwar Awlaki is seriously denuded. While some Western theorists, chief among them Agamben, are capable of ascertaining similar characteristics in the Holocaust and the ongoing war on terror, one would be hard pressed to identify this analogical mode of thinking as anything approaching dominant or ascendant, which suggests a level of permanence to the position of bare life in the war on terror as constitutively excluded.
This example emphasizes that Wilderson and Agamben have strikingly similar accounts of suffering. Both suggest that for certain bodies the difference from other bodies is one of kind rather than degree. That is, for Wilderson the slave is ontologically distinct from the body that is included in civil society. Similarly, Agamben holds that bare life is in a position of abjection, subject to the vicissitudes of violent sovereignty by virtue of an inclusion whose only index is the body’s subjection to violence.
But there is one important seeming distinction: while Wilderson and Agamben both render the violence as ontological in the sense that it absolutely denies the humanity and agency of those upon it is visited, Agamben reads the emptiness of sovereignty’s authority—here I would say its rhetorical basis—as a sign of hope rather than the pessimism that Wilderson suggests. As he says in State of Exception the lack of a “substantial articulation” between violence and law, that is, the fact that the relationship is established through tautology rather than through appeal to some kind of external authority, suggests that the inability to distinguish between violence and the law is itself a resource for political action, one that could demonstrate that emptiness. Wilderson on the other hand believes that the investment in authority for authority’s sake is evidence that there is no chance for the slave to exist in the world because the slave’s existence is what makes the world possible. As he says it, “No slave, no world” because of both how the physical labor of slavery makes our existing world possible and also how the symbolic figure of the slave secures, through various and sundry means, the intelligibility of civil society itself.
Above I mark the distinction as “seeming” because I think the attitudinal difference between the two thinkers is much less than the shared explanation both give for the way in which political action sediments hierarchies to the detriment of bodies that have no access to those political worlds. Both Agamben and Wilderson indicate that the authority of civil society is generated by tautological exercises of sovereign power the ground themselves in their own assumption of authority. Agamben suggests that sovereignty anticipates its own success to close off alternative perspectives while Wilderson argues that anti-blackness works as a paradigm by rendering a constitutively impossibility arguments and actions which might testify to its own self-investment in authority. Wilderson and Agamben both outline theories of political exclusion that argue some forms of life are given priority over other forms of life, and the unintelligibility of those other forms of life is the grist for the mill of civil society and politics, respectively. Wilderson’s point regarding Agamben’s focus on the Holocaust is a necessary one, but contemporary situations of global violence also suggest that there may be a level of permanence to the state of exception that argues more for a reading of affinity between the two rather than a theorization of their opposition.
 I am excited to interrogate further how Agamben is read by Jared Sexton, Achille Mbembe, and others. I have not yet had a chance to do that.
 Frank Wilderson, Red, White, and Black: The Structure of Antagonisms in U.S. Cinema, Durham: Duke University Press, (2010) p. 36
 For more see David Noon, “Operation Enduring Anslogy” in Rhetoric & Public Affairs
 Wilderson, Red, White, and Black p. 38
 Aristotle, The Politics
 Wilderson 11
 Giorgio Agamben, State of Exception, p. 23
 State of Exception, p. 87