Thinking "Global Blackness" Through the Frame of Angelus Novus: An Exploration of Racial Aporias and the Politics of Modern Power, Sovereignty, and Temporality

Patricia Northover University of the West Indies, Jamaica
Abstract: In this exploratory essay, I would like to offer a way of thinking about the generative processes inherent in the formation of modern power that bring about and sustain a globalizing "blackness." Recently, Michelle Wright, in Physics of Blackness, suggested that one needs to investigate the phenomena of blackness not in relation to a "what" but in relation to a stitching together of a certain timespace—a when and a where. But what are the timespaces of this present blackness— whether as lived blackness or as given through particular performative tropes agonistically attached to the incoherencies of identity? I suggest that one may evince a certain intuition of the nature of these timespaces, (and relatedly the experience of blackness), as Benjamin did from Klee’s artwork, Angelus Novus. Yet, one may also directly ask how modern temporalities, or, as Bakhtin suggests, "chronotopes," are being stitched together and how an appeal to "race" or "race matters" may assist us here. In this essay, I wish to engage with such questions and offer a particular extension of Du Bois’ meditation on race, in Dusk of Dawn, as a complex "group of contradictory forces, facts and tendencies." In particular, I wish to interpret his intuition as intimating what I wish to call a "race assemblage" that is articulated in an aporetic field of force relations. In developing this view, I wish to highlight the role of sovereignty in animating this assemblage, given its entailment of rule structures conserving "a legitimate fiction" for "giving" law and "ordering" place.

Part 1. Introduction

In this exploratory essay, I would like to offer a way of thinking about the generative processes that bring about and sustain a globalizing blackness.[1] I will argue that these generative processes are inherent in modern power modalities but complexly folded by time. As such, I suggest that we should begin our meditation on the idea of a "global blackness" with a modern pictoral frame, that of Paul Klee’s 1920 painting, Angelus Novus—an oil transfer drawing with watercolor—that seems to capture the spirit of our modern age betwixt and between global warfare and terror (see Figure 1).

I would like to offer a way of thinking about the generative processes that bring about and sustain a globalizing blackness.

This painting deeply inspired the German Jewish philosopher and cultural and literary critic, Walter Benjamin (1892–1940), who at one point dallied with and influenced the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory, yet was unable to really belong to its frames. Indeed, Benjamin, a fragile and tragic figure caught up within European-centered geopolitical instabilities erupting at the turn of the twentieth century, lived in the conjuncture of a certain un-belonging. In particular, as a Jew he lived a specific experience of displacement and "being a problem" within the frames of modern history. Furthermore, he lived this conjuncture of un-belonging particularly deeply, largely because he was the contingent bearer of an impossible identity, that of the German Jew. His positioning, then, within the incoherencies of specific spatiotemporal frames I believe underlies his fascination with Klee’s painting and provides him with inspiration for a philosophy of history that calls upon what he referred to as a "weak Messianic power."

Benjamin’s philosophy brings a certain view of history into light that disrupts the chronotope of linear history—which he termed "homogeneous empty time"—in order to see time’s flow more in line with Bergson’s theory of duration. Here "time," while being practically indexed by past, present, and future, nonetheless overlaps and incites pulses of rhythmic and arrhythmic moments, temporal movements as well as disjointed flows. Bergson’s concept of "duration" also places particular emphasis on the idea of time as a process in which the lived durée of the past folds unpredictably into our grasping of the present and, as William Connolly emphasizes in his discussion of pluralism and time, in Pluralism (2005), Bergson’s durational time impresses itself, without determination, into our agential powers and politics of becoming.

Benjamin’s philosophy brings a certain view of history into light that disrupts the chronotope of linear history.

The time of duration for Benjamin would also entail that a weak Messianic power is seeded in the process of lived time. This weak Messianic power suggests a situation in which the "present"—and its generation—act as the limen for the hopes of the past for redemption in the future. Or, as Benjamin states in Illuminations (1968) (a text that gathers a collection of his works, edited by a kindred spirit, Hannah Arendt, Jewish political philosopher):

The past carries with it a temporal index by which it is referred to redemption. There is a secret agreement between past generations and the present one. Our coming was expected on earth. Like every generation that preceded us, we have been endowed with a weak Messianic power, a power to which the past has a claim. That claim cannot be settled cheaply. Historical materialists are aware of that. (254)

Moreover, in this quote (Benjamin’s second of eighteen on the philosophy of history), as Andrew Robinson suggests in his 2013 online article, "Messianism and Revolution," Benjamin implies that present revolutions "redeem" or continue "past" revolutions, perhaps in a similar vein to Marx’s own thesis that the history of class struggle expresses a dialectical tendency for revolutionary reconstitutions of society at large (or, "our collective ruin" if that fails). It is important to note here, though, that while Benjamin gives voice to the dead in the revolution, Karl Marx insists in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte that "the social revolution cannot take its poetry from the past but only from the future" ([1852] 2010, 106).

In beginning this reflection on "global blackness" through the frames of the painting Angelus Novus and Walter Benjamin’s own peculiar timespace of un-belonging and impossibility, I wish to directly position a thinking of global blackness in the complexly folded chronopolitics of our modern hi/stories (that is, as Crichlow and Northover [2009] express it, human identity stories). In particular, I wish to address the character of its timespaces and its repressed, but ever-present relation with ghosts—ghosts that haunt the present but also give weight to at least a weak Messianic power for those engaged in the politics of redemption. [2]

In beginning this reflection on "global blackness" through the frames of the painting Angelus Novus and Walter Benjamin’s own peculiar timespace of un-belonging and impossibility, I wish to directly position a thinking of global blackness in the complexly folded chronopolitics of our modern hi/stories.

In this regard, in the first instance, is it possible for us to dwell with global blackness not so much as a claim to a certain kind of spatialized "being," that is, as an identity perforce performed under the weight of the spatialized body (although blackness is, of course, unimaginable without such ostensive claims about a certain contextualized way of living and encountering "being-in-the-world"), but rather, see it more as a claim to an untimely becoming—an untimeliness indicative of, as Wilder notes "a being out of sync with the corresponding historical period" (Wilder 2009, 106)? This latter sense proposed here thus projects other claims into the world, claims bearing a weak Messianic power for redemption, claims that, as Benjamin stated, "cannot be taken lightly."

I would wish to add here that such claims are thus very much attuned to a politics of temporality—and in this case, a Messianic time addressing "the time-to-come"[3]which Benjamin describes as "blasting a specific life out of the era, or a specific work out of the lifework; . . . a lifework that is preserved in this work and at the same time cancelled; in the life work, the era; and in the era, the entire course of history" (1968, 263). Or, as Robinson comments, a Messianic moment seeks to "rupture things from their particular relation in an order of things" in order to rearticulate or redeem them (2013). This view is relevant if we immediately recognize in the political temporalities of global blackness as redemption, the very active presence (rather than passive and easily manipulated interests) of those ghosts haunting the internal relation of modernity and coloniality. This problem of haunting is creatively reflected on in Toni Morrison’s Beloved and insightfully explored by Avery Gordon in her seminal 1997 text, Ghostly Matters. In this regard, I believe that in following this track, we would also benefit from thinking global blackness along the very nuanced lines of a Césairian Négritude and its politics of "depassement," which proposes a "reactivation of the past with a view to its own surpassing" (Walsh 2013, 111) or as a "way of living a history within history" (Césaire 1995, 14). This line of thinking is one that I cannot elaborate upon here, but one that Michaeline Crichlow and I have sought to explore elsewhere in an article on Aimé Césaire published recently in the South Atlantic Quarterly, (Northover and Crichlow 2016).

Next, having unmoored blackness from eternal investments in cultural identity claims, could we not also conceive of global blackness as being a type of monadic force (as articulated in Benjamin’s seventeenth thesis of history) implicated in the rising debris of ruination that is being impelled by the violent storm of progress, as Benjamin’s interpretation of the Klee’s Angelus Novus suggests? If we follow Benjamin (1968) here, the Angelus Novus is an angel of history looking—with eyes staring, mouth open, and wings spread— "as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating" (1968, 257). And, as Benjamin highlights:

His face is turned to the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees a single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly impels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. The storm is what we call progress. (1968, 257–58)

Thus, to the degree that our present experiences of global blackness are likewise caught in these same winds and ruins emanating from the storm of progress, might they not harbor an overlapping temporal sensibility with Benjamin, one which would affirm with him a materialist historiography that is concerned with "not only the flow of thoughts but their arrest as well," and with recognizing a "revolutionary chance in the fight for the oppressed past". . . "in order to blast a specific era out of the homogenous course of history. . . ." (ibid., 262–63)? Overall then, in introducing thinking about global blackness with Walter Benjamin’s reflections on Klee’s painting as a guide, I consider my task here as a studious consideration of how global blackness operates as, to use Benjamin’s words, " a constellation within which our own era has formed with a definite earlier one," yet a constellation that, as Benjamin avers, "is shot through with chips of Messianic time" (ibid., 263).

For the remainder of this essay, I will first, in part 2, try to unpack a bit of this "constellation of global blackness" via a critical reading of Michelle Wright’s 2015 text, Physics of Blackness. Then I wish to locate the timespace or chronotope of global blackness through the presence of racial aporias. In this third section, I wish to also link such racial aporias to the articulation of race as a relation of forces via the sovereign imaginary. I conclude with a brief review of my main points.

Part 2. Unpacking a Constellation

Recently, Michelle Wright, in her 2015 text, Physics of Blackness: Beyond the Middle Passage Epistemology, has suggested that we need to investigate the phenomenon of blackness not in relation to a "what" but in relation to a stitching together of a certain timespace—a where and a when. Wright’s objective is to move away from a certain "objectification" of blackness on the body and also away from a fundamentalist initialization of blackness via "Middle Passage journeys," historical spaces that have been deployed as a legitimizing canon for discourses on diasporic or global blackness. In contrast, she wishes to pay attention to a "phenomenology of Blackness, that is, to a when and where it is being imagined, defined, performed, and in what locations, both figurative and literal" (Wright 2015, 3).

In her argument, blackness is irreducibly performative. As she states: "Blackness then is largely a matter of perception or—as performance studies theorist E Patrick Johnson observes—made up of moments of performance in which performers understand their bodies as black." She adds controversially, "because it is not necessary for the audience to understand such performances as Black (except in the matter of ticket sales and perhaps favorable reviews) this further suggest that Blackness is in the mind of the performer" (ibid., 3). She summarizes her thesis as follows:

Physics of Blackness: Beyond the Middle Passage Epistemology argues that Blackness operates as a construct (implicitly or explicitly defined as a shared set physical and behavioral characteristics) and as phenomenological (imagined through individual perceptions in various ways depending on context). As such, we can best locate and define Blackness across the African Diaspora by incorporating both of these aspects into our analyses within and without the academy. (4)

In all this, Wright is reaching toward a methodology that she believes will allow for a more inclusionary assemblage of experiences as black. Hence her emphasis lies less in a discounting of "linear progress narratives" into which, she argues, Middle Passage epistemologies and constructs of blackness are lodged, than in supplementing this with another register marking blackness, this being what she refers to as "epiphenomenal time" or "the ‘now’ through which the past, present, and future are always interpreted" (ibid.).

Why should it be that, despite striving for so long to sing from the same hymn book of modern growth and liberal progress, the world remains beset by terrible scenes of racial haunting and an unraveling of political settlements?

In her creative engagement for a more inclusionary politics to produce a new global blackness as such, Wright wishes to infuse blackness with a greater agential mediation of the registers of modern power by highlighting the horizontal sway of epiphenomenal time as a mode of unsettling one’s understanding of blackness through epistemologically fixed discourses of Middle Passage journeys. For Wright, such historical origin transcripts overdetermine the formation of black identity and are overly dependent on a process causality rooted in linear temporal narratives. Nonetheless, despite her well-intentioned efforts to overcome, or escape, divisive dichotomous readings of blackness, especially in the United States, she veers toward a sort of methodological individualism for enabling a more agency-centric ‘scene of blackness’ to emerge with epiphenomenal time. In particular, her approach for the cutting of a figure of blackness problematically fails to examine the nature of the forces implicated in the intersection of vertical, or hierarchical, systems of power with the inherently relational suturing of human experiences of blackness. As such, she neglects to dwell sufficiently with the character of the political forms mediating admittedly complex practices and modes of producing those timespaces through which differential agential desires, or senses of selves or identity, get played out.

Furthermore, while she endorses leaving race behind as something not real (given the notorious epistemological undecidability problem concerning distinctions among human beings based on biological natures) in order to account for blackness in diverse processes of construction and its dynamic flexibility, it appears unlikely that this effort to dismiss the force of race will succeed. Thus, as John L. Jackson Jr. (2005) exclaims in his introductory essay, "A Little Black Magic":

No, race is not alive, not anymore. We’ve killed it, deconstructed it to death, social-constructionized it out of fully animate existence. But it is hardly that easy. Instead, our beast has risen from the dead and haunts our every waking hour. It is the bogeyman in our collective social closet, make believe but all the more frightening for its irreality, its ghostly intangibility. (400)

Thus, as Jackson argued in his introduction to that special journal issue, despite attempts to shift the discourse (and it has indeed been shifted, as seen, for example in "Racism without Races," as Etienne Balibar and Immanuel Wallerstein [1991] had put forward in speaking to neoracism, or in the controversial move to announce a postracial world in the United States, specifically given the success of President Barak Obama, or with Wright’s promotion, in Physics of Blackness, of a shifting utility of signifying practices for broadening the spectrum of blackness beyond the Manichean politics of racial black/white identity assignments), one still remains entangled by the questions raised by the dead hand of race, "in the wake" (as Christina Sharpe poignantly reminds us in the title of her 2016 text) of its tendencies on present "Blackness and Being." So, despite not being able to say what race is exactly, which Fanon, in his explosive [(1952) 1986] text, Black Skin, White Masks already recognized, one still encounters racial power effects, generally articulated as racism, and expressed principally in a reductive violence of excess and visceral dehumanizing and exclusionary effects upon bodies, subjects, populations, communities, and spaces. The evidence for such racial power effects is certainly palpably evident in the United States of America, given its racialized cohorts of incarcerated, detained, denied, terrorized, impoverished, and excluded who exist generally through marginalized and precarious, indeed "entombed" lives, as W. E. B. Du Bois, and more recently, Michele Alexander (2011) have highlighted.[4]

These racialized experiences have been poignantly and carefully discussed in the notable works of famous black American authors such as W. E. B. Du Bois, John Hope Franklin, and Toni Morrison.

These racialized experiences have been poignantly and carefully discussed in the notable works of famous black American authors such as W. E. B. Du Bois, John Hope Franklin, and Toni Morrison. In addition, other scholars have addressed the precarity of different nonwhite groups in the United States, as seen, for example, in the recent contributions of Shu-Mei Shih (2008), Dana Powell (forthcoming), Carrigan and Webb (2013), and Nicole M. Guidotti-Hernández (2011). However, such racialized experiences or peculiar predicaments extend elsewhere. For example, we can impute that the "lived fact" of a global blackness is racialized when black and other nonwhite bodies become invariably associated with and targets of cultures of dehumanization, poverty, inequality, consumerism, violence, and death, as the seminal research and writings of Giovanni Arrighi, Anthony Bogues (2010), Vincent Brown, Balibar and Wallerstein, William Darity (2009), Frantz Fanon, Stuart Hall, Gillian Hart, Saidiya Hartman (1997), Thomas Holt, C. L. R. James, Charles Mills, Achille Mbembe, Orlando Patterson, Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Denise Ferreira da Silva (2007), Hortense Spillers, Ann Laura Stoler, Eric Williams, and Sylvia Wynter illuminate.[5] In addition, these global processes of "racialization" are also evident, for example, when physical spaces and bodies become mythically charged with blackness, leaving peoples, places, and cultures essentialized and frozen into ahistorical scripts, or "savage slots," and then used for predicting tendencies for typically ethnic (read black on black) poverty, violence, and conflict, as highlighted by Trouillot (2003) and Spillers (1987).[6] Drawing on the stock of such racialized scripts, Easterly and Levine (1997) sought to provide explanations for Africa’s then slow growth.

One is then led to the question of why this should be the case. Indeed, why should it be that, despite striving for so long to sing from the same hymn book of modern growth and liberal progress, the world remains beset by terrible scenes of racial haunting and an unraveling of political settlements? Has our world system, despite its race to progress and freedom, given its declared triumph over that exceptionalized evil of Nazism, taken an untimely turn so soon?

Part 3. Racial Aporias and the Politics of Modern Power, Sovereignty, and Temporality

Now in order to respond to the tenacity of opaquely racialized discourses and racialized experiences, we need to probe more deeply into the character of what Fanon spoke to as the "fact of blackness," or, as Fred Moten (2008) suggests in an excellent intervention on the problem of the pathologizing of blackness, perhaps it is better to address the "case of blackness," that is, insofar as we are dealing with something apparently to be held forever under suspicion, hovering in the zone of impossibility, constantly under interrogation, and with the threat of violence continuously suspended in the air. But how does an examination of race or its ghostly matter assist us here? While multiple discourses exist in the interrogation of what race is, or how racial identities are engendered/produced/constructed and racial power is to be identified, the shifting terms of the debate has led Ann Laura Stoler (1997) to seek to interpret this embarrassment of riches as a reflection of changing "regimes of truth." At best, what we seem to have are diverse stories of what composes what Omi and Winant ([1986] 2002) critically refer to as "racial formations," which they define as " the sociohistorical process by which racial categories are created, inhabited, transformed and destroyed" ([1986] 2002, 124). This observation underlines not just the force of real historical processes but their multiplicity and complexity, mediating, shaping, and giving concrete texture to experiences. It is not surprising, then, that several perspectives are on offer in treating race.

I wish to suggest that this intellectual split reflects an arguable gap in the explication of racial formations and is due to the tendency to divorce it from the operation of sovereignty as such in favor of a focus upon other related political analytical schemas (such as liberal contract theory) and other modes of social structuring (such as class or the nation–state institution).

Yet, to the best of my knowledge, none of the accounts on offer sees a pervasive role for this problem of race itself in composing the nature and dynamic of political sovereignty as such (i.e., as a thing proper to but irreducible to state forms or organizations),[7] nor do they seem to be able to pinpoint its mode of implication in the nature and dynamic of the capital relation sustaining modern forms of power beyond what Marx identified as its contingent implication in the formation of modern class relations (the social relations of capital) through processes of primitive accumulation, marked by what was considered to be extraeconomic forces, such as racial slavery. Thus, while there have been substantive efforts to develop a Marxian inflected analysis of race and racial formations, as presented, for example, in the work of Stuart Hall (1980), Thomas Holt (1995, 2000), and Hardt and Negri (2000), disagreements split a Marxist analysis of race. For example, Hall and Holt offer to give greater autonomy to the work that race does in modern capitalist systems, in contrast to Hardt and Negri for whom racial exclusion and racialized power are not really essential to the workings of liberal capitalist democracies and its global face of Empire. Holt, on the other hand, seeks to build upon Hall’s major proposition that "race is the modality in which class is ‘lived,’ the medium through which class relations are experienced, the form in which it is appropriated and ‘fought through’" (cited in Holt 2000, 27). The political force of race in modernity is even further emphasized by ex-Marxist scholar and philosopher Charles Mills who, for many decades now, has been promoting the argument first presented in his classic text, The Racial Contract, that "white supremacy is the unnamed political system that has made the modern world what it is" (1997, 1).

For my part, I wish to suggest that this intellectual split reflects an arguable gap in the explication of racial formations and is due to the tendency to divorce it from the operation of sovereignty as such in favor of a focus upon other related political analytical schemas (such as liberal contract theory) and other modes of social structuring (such as class or the nation–state institution).[8] I consider that this tendency exists, first, because of the intellectual weight of the Foucauldian "analytics of race" (presented in his series of lectures in the 1970s) that operationalized race within the terms of biopower, and biopolitics—the new political technologies held to underpin the rise of modern power and governmentality. This was consistent with his methodological orientation, discussed as genealogy, which focused largely upon shifting the discourse of power to a study of the terms of the modern rationalities of power reshaping social and state spaces across Europe which then became appropriated globally.[9] Foucault’s analysis of modern power in Society Must Be Defended was thus critically invested in displacing an interpretation of power through the standard "philosophico-juridicial discourse of sovereignty and law" (as reflected in Hobbes and Bodin) in favor of a particular genealogical reading of spatial history that renders power noneconomic, "as something that is exercised" and "not something that is given, exchanged, or taken back." Power is paradigmatically presented as that which "exists only in action" and conducted through warlike, capillary and racialized ‘relationships of force’" (Foucault [1997] 2003, 14–15).

Foucault’s genealogical strategy was undeniably expressed from the standpoint of a European reflexivity, nonetheless aimed at highlighting the factors resisting and counterposing the force of sovereignty as an absolute power exercised over a social whole and the land. Accordingly, while he incorporated the colonial situation in his analysis, he paid less attention to the presence of what may be called relational histories of coloniality and modernity, and relatedly that of capitalism and slavery (as highlighted for example by Eric Williams [1944], Mintz [1985], McMichael [1991], Bhabba [1994], Mignolo [2000], Mbembe [2001], Trouillot [2002, 2003], Hansen and Stepputat [2005], and Stoler [2008]). Such relational histories were ineluctably at work in shaping both the imaginary and ontology of modern power beyond the biopolitical, given the peculiar weight of colonial racialized relations and its aporias. Moreover, the relative silencing of these relational histories, most profoundly exemplified in the occlusion of Haiti, despite its critical revolutionary entanglements with major modern state formations,[10] would engender a consequential blindness to the haunting or spectral effects of a peculiarly racialized modern power and the radical morphing of the sovereign imaginary by virtue of the ambivalent and experimental timespaces of colonial encounters—as highlighted in Bhabba (1994), Nancy Appelbaum et al. (2003), Spillers (1987), and Wynter (1995, 2003)—and their economies and cultures of violence and desire, as stressed by C. L. R. James ([1938] 1963), Anne McClintock (1995), Ann Laura Stoler (1995), and Vincent Brown (2008).

I believe that this postulated gap in the explication of racial formations has been fostered because of the natural (and perhaps historically ineluctable) tendency of theoretical reflections to ascribe to a powerful "color-coded" but elastic binary analytics of race as "nonwhiteness" and "whiteness."

Second, I believe that this postulated gap in the explication of racial formations has been fostered because of the natural (and perhaps historically ineluctable) tendency of theoretical reflections to ascribe to a powerful "color-coded" but elastic binary analytics of race as "nonwhiteness" and "whiteness." This tendency has been expressed within the terms of a cultural sociology of race as pigmentocracy, or via analyses of subjectivist performances within a phenomenology of black/white experiences rendering blackness or whiteness as properties of the self. Alternately, it may also appear in more in-depth explorations of the cultural politics of hegemony and its representational economy and policing strategies, given modern states’ legal formulations of unstable and ambiguous constructions of racial categories, as illustrated in Cheryl Harris’ classic 1993 article, "Whiteness as Property," and Goldberg’s 2002 text, The Racial State. The instrumentality of such color-coded race politics, historically insinuated into legal practices, and, as Goldberg argues, in the social DNA of the modern state, lends to a phenotype of whiteness its real structural properties in determining the socioeconomic, political, and psychic possibilities, as well as status of the self (Goldberg 2002). As such, attention to such binary-coded strategies offers invaluable insights into the diverse social levers through which a discourse of race can be etched into the phenomenology of self–other relationships, given the practices and processes of "comparative racialization," as discussed by Dubois (1902), Fanon ([1952] 1986), and Shu-Mei Shih (2008), which are buttressed by racializing sociostructural processes of marginalization and disadvantage. In so doing, these works remain needful substantive demonstrations of the vital implication of nation–state formations in "racial projects" advancing a "color line." Nevertheless, I conjecture that a focus upon a color-coded binary analytics of race, as the nonwhiteness and whiteness of agents/subjects/groups, is limited in its critical force. In particular, such a color-coded binary focus is constraining because the greater weight of analysis is spent on tracing a substantive ontological or ostensively rationalist ground around which such a politics of difference may be, or has been, historically articulated for possible racial becoming or identification in the world (whether such racial identities are represented in objectivist or subjectivist terms, or whether culturally, positively [i.e., accordingly to the laws of historical development], or legally composed/constructed).[11] This work, though certainly politically compelling, in order to sociologically and/or pragmatically ground and get around the aporetic qualities of race to historically disclose the dynamic politics of racialization processes, may, nonetheless, elide the significance of other types of interpretive and political processes at work upon the elusive object under study.

In suggesting an alternative (and as far as possible) complementary track, I wish to put forward here that perhaps the ambiguities, ambivalences, and, indeed, aporia inherent in the phenomena of race or its racial categories as secreted into the world and our lived experience are really a distinctive quality to begin from.

In suggesting an alternative (and as far as possible) complementary track, I wish to put forward here that perhaps the ambiguities, ambivalences, and, indeed, aporia inherent in the phenomena of race or its racial categories as secreted into the world and our lived experience are really a distinctive quality to begin from. In other words, the racial aporias encountered in life and the tremendous, yet often bitterly divided theoretical effort required to explain, or render intelligible, certain racialized things and experiences that present themselves as uncertain, undecidable, and indeed unassimilable (as emphasized by Frank B. Wilderson III [2016, 2003]), in the first instance point to the general situation of uncertainty belying strong ontological, and even weakly rational, but determining claims. Derrida, keen to stress this aspect of our life experiences, introduces the concept of hauntology, which, as Jonathan Joseph points out, is not something "reducible to the certainties of ontological being and non-being, presence and absence or life and death. Hauntology is the world of spirits and specters" (2004, 249). It suggests a world where, as Frederic Jameson stated, "the living present is scarcely as self-sufficient as it claims to be" (quoted in Joseph 2004, 249).[12] The quality of race, then, is that it exists neither as object nor subject, neither as concept nor essential identity, but rather its opaque quality of scarcely existing at all makes it operate within the context of hauntologies. The problematic matter of race, as Dubois suggested in his own effort to tease out the qualities of racialized life, needs to be addressed not really as concept as such, but rather as a "category of practice" attached to a complex assemblage, a "race assemblage" gathering a "group of contradictory forces, facts and tendencies." [13], [14]

Race, as a spectral thing and complex assemblage, interpolates "being" and marks it without being necessary or essential to that being. Racialized relations accordingly possess a hauntological status rather than an ontological one and are thus characterized by a certain fuzziness, slipperiness, and ghostly unpresentability, leaving possibilities of representation to turn in and on the infinite space between social fact and lived experience. This general condition brings into relief the ineluctable social pressure for creating a closure, a situation intimately and paradoxically dependent upon the shadowy, elusive, ambiguous, and equally indeterminate presence, or figure, of a final authoritative or sovereign force.[15]

Race, as a spectral thing and complex assemblage, interpolates "being" and marks it without being necessary or essential to that being.

If the pressure for social closure is intrinsically related to the imagination of sovereignty (or a final authority holding presence as a "proper" or "legitimate fiction" and as the sine qua non element for encountering meaning, performing identity, and giving law), then any social practice of marking or defending foundational boundary constructions or the order of postulated things rests upon a sovereign relation.[16] It is important to point out here, though, that the sovereign relation, beyond being intimately concerned with the social and bound to the historical composition or constitution of the social, is also wholly noneconomic insofar as it is principally concerned, as Wendy Brown (2008) in particular, and others have pointed out, with the reality that life itself, indeed, man’s distinctive "life form" and "being as a whole" (the commonwealth) is at stake.[17] For this reason, sovereignty is, as she states, "both generated and generative, yet it is also ontologically a priori, presupposed, original" (2008, 254). The effecting of a "race assemblage" cannot therefore be thought of solely in biopolitical terms or considered only through the cultural politics of producing a subject; it must also be understood, as Wendy Brown (2008) and Derrida (2005) have argued, within terms of a political theology or ontotheology.[18]

In this regard, as Holt (1995, 1) remarked in opening his essay: "Though separated by an ocean in distance and nearly half a century in time, Du Bois and Fanon articulate strikingly similar descriptions of their discovery of a racial self. It is important that theirs is in fact a discovery, for their ‘race’ inheres neither in biology nor in culture but must be summoned to consciousness by their encounters in social space and historical time" (the latter emphasis is mine). A racial self is thus "summoned," ostensively suspending an aporia of meaning through a rule structure that is expected to give "birth" to the form of things and their relative/absolute presentability in certain timespaces. Accordingly, disclosing the character of any, but, in particular, modern sovereignty’s rule in and for the social, and the life of man and his society, will rest upon examining the metaphysical tenets coded by an invocation of certain "place scripts"; scripts that must be particularized and worked out through the production of distinct timespaces which, in turn, work to yield or summon complex forms of globalizing blackness.[19]

One would thus treat a "race assemblage" first and foremost as expressive of an aporetic rule structure invested in the summoning of place scripts that introduce a particular relation of forces to the fore of our consciousness.

One would thus treat a "race assemblage" first and foremost as expressive of an aporetic rule structure invested in the summoning of place scripts that introduce a particular relation of forces to the fore of our consciousness. The notion of place scripts here draws upon a Heideggerian philosophy of "place" that, in brief, as Elden (2001, 20) states, denotes a "capacity to be present."[20] However, the modern relation of forces encoding place scripts gathering and animating a modern race assemblage, as I have argued elsewhere, is that of the sovereign and the abject; that is, a ghostly state of "being without," without law, sovereignlessness, a sublimely disavowed thing which I characterized as "abject blackness" (Northover 2012).[21] This relation of forces is, of course, historically constituted but guided by an invoked racialized philosophy of place, giving an aporetic and truly spectral relation between the "legitimate fiction" of modern sovereignty as absolute place/proper presence and the unpresentability of its “other,” abject blackness—that which is forced to inhabit an invoked placelessness marked by the absolute cognates of "no place," "nonplace," or bodies "out of place."[22] This relation of forces between the sovereign and the abject is a project of sovereign dominion that is not equivalent to the emergent modern governmental and biopolitical techniques of structural objectification/subjectification, and similarly, though historically related, it is to be held distinct from or irreducible to (liberal capitalist) market or economically driven processes of commodification and surplus value (absolute and relative) accumulation. In contrast, this modern sovereign relation of forces is rather more akin to the strategies of "totalitarianism," as elaborated by Hannah Arendt (1979), or "entombment," as suggested by Du Bois ([1940] 2007), and is mythically charged with the spectral forces invoked and suppressed in a necropolitics (perhaps, to borrow a phrase from Mbembe) of zombification.[23]

As such, I propose that the modern form of globalizing blackness requires us to think of a layer of spatial composition, distinct from a standard "politics of place," "othering," or "cultural difference," precisely because of the peculiar forces it mediates. In particular, the globalizing race assemblage of modern blackness, rather than being reductively relayed through the ontology of modern biopolitics (or abstract space, the focal shift Foucault sought to bring attention to in his work on modern power rationalities), is more intimately imbricated in what Lefebvre refers to as "absolute space."

I propose that the modern form of globalizing blackness requires us to think of a layer of spatial composition, distinct from a standard "politics of place," "othering," or "cultural difference," precisely because of the peculiar forces it mediates.

In his text, The Production of Space, Lefebvre discusses absolute space as belonging to what he spoke of as "representational spaces," that is, "space as directly lived through its associated images and symbols" ([1974] 1991, 39). Absolute space is further described as "religious and political in character" and generally sustained by "bonds of consanguinity, soil and language" (ibid., 48). Although Lefebvre states that absolute space is diminishing in its overt significance and "barely achieves symbolic force" (ibid., 50), because it is being eclipsed by the luminosity of abstract space (where the emphasis is on relations of knowledge and power, and the rule of capital is dominant), he emphasizes that absolute space not only evolves a space that is "relativized and historical" but it remains as "the bedrock of historical space and the basis of representational spaces (religious, magical and political symbolisms)" (ibid., 48). Nevertheless, as Hansen and Steputtat (2005) have emphasized, the (absolute) space of sovereignty is fragile and paradoxical, as sovereignty is sustained as both an absolute condition and precarious effect. Or as they state, ". . . sovereignty needs to be performed and reiterated on a daily basis in order to be effective, to form the basic referent of the state" (Hansen and Steputtat 2005, 7).

The political formation of our social space and historical time may thus be further examined, I suggest, through Bakhtin’s concept of a chronotope. This concept was introduced in his 1981 text, The Dialogic Imagination, to address the nature of "the assimilation of real historical time and space in literature" (1981, 84) and the importance of this for the production of literary genres. In light of the work this concept supports, namely, the effort of pressing a "legitimate fiction" into reality, I believe that it can help us to think about the chronopolitical problem of engendering lived timespaces. In particular, Bakhtin argued for the need to see "spatial and temporal indicators as fused into one carefully thought out concrete whole" (ibid.). Thus, as he explains, "Time, as it were, thickens, takes on flesh, becomes artistically visible; likewise space becomes charged and responsive to the movements of time, plot and histories" (ibid.).

This is no doubt a deeply complicated movement of temporality that requires attention to all the different layers of modern power as well as the attendant practices, structuring modalities and processes entangled in its politics of place, space, and race. In this regard, an important aspect in an untangling of the complexity of the chronotope of modern blackness lies in the fact that a modern race assemblage rests not only on the Manichean and violent political scripts of whiteness and nonwhiteness (or human, not quite human, and nonhuman assignations) but more critically, upon the effort to trace contingent processes of sovereign effects upon certain emplaced bodies being scripted as unpresentable or out of place in modern power’s timespace. This reading of modern timespace and its sovereign relation of forces suggests, then, that the spectral figure of abject blackness is ultimately one thrust into the timespace of the untimely. Accordingly, the modern relation of forces sustaining and globalizing tropes of blackness provokes the latter’s claim to an untimely becoming . . . claims that, as Benjamin stated, "cannot be taken lightly."

Overall then, in the absence of secure ontological grounds, and faced with the paradoxical situation of an "e/racing appearance," given the racial power effects (and affects) of modern race assemblages, our experiences of modern blackness have to be detected by the "pressing into flesh of time and a charging of space in response to the movements of time, plot and histories." In light of the above tendencies arising from a racial aporia, one may regard racial power effects then as a type of haunting for which one requires, as Avery Gordon (1997, 8) states, "A very peculiar way of knowing what has happened or is happening."


In this exploratory essay, I have tried to sketch a way of thinking about the generative processes, inherent in the formation of modern power, that bring about and sustain a globalizing blackness. I have sought to show that these generative processes are complexly folded by timespace and that sovereignty is an often-overlooked force animating what I have called a race assemblage, given its rule structures conserving a legitimate fiction for giving law and ordering place. I have also stressed that modern sovereignty rests upon specific metaphysical tenets coded by an invocation of place scripts and particularized and worked out through the production of distinct timespaces yielding complex forms of globalizing blackness.

Modern blackness and its processes and politics of comparative racialization, aided and abetted by the modern institutional apparatus of racial states (or state formations), emerges, then, through new categories of abjection, signally the global outworking of a new relation of forces that deepens the complex liberal play of modern power and its attendant place scripts, giving, as Julia Kristeva (1982) would say, to each ego its object and for the modern sovereign its sublimely abject. This is arguably a new and toxic recipe for not just "agonal sovereignties," as Barder and Debrix (2011) argue, and Du Boisian "double consciousness," but perhaps also for a generalizing triple consciousness arising from a globalizing blackness, a situation which would indicate that more and more bodies, peoples, places, and spaces are becoming articulated in modern race assemblages, composing the object, subject, and (im)properly abject, and animated by the contingent sovereign normalization of racist desires, racialized accumulation, conflict, and racial war. Given the peculiar nature of the modern specters haunting contemporary societies, our social life has thus become violently and chronopolitically framed by global blackness and what Stoler and McGranahan (1997) has described as "imperial formations" and their modern racial regimes of ruination; regimes which, I suggest, ineluctably provoke untimely "monadic forces" for the time-to-come.



  1. I wish to thank the organizers of the symposium on Global Blackness for their invitation to speak on this topic and the participants at that event for their many comments and questions. Special thanks, in particular, to Professor Thomas DeFrantz, the chair of African and African-American Studies at Duke University, who hosted the symposium in collaboration with the Franklin Humanities Institute Humanities Futures project. I also wish to warmly thank Professor Michaeline Crichlow with whom I have collaborated in coauthoring an unpublished paper (Crichlow and Northover in references) seeking to interrogate "global blackness" but routed through a critical reflection on the literatures of African diasporas, blackness, and globalization. The ideas presented here, however, are my own but are undoubtedly in debt to a community of critical thinkers.
  2. For a critical discussion of Walter Benjamin’s notion of Messianism entailed in a "weak Messianic power" in relation to Derrida’s notion of "Messianic without Messianism," see Ware (2004). While Ware seeks in this essay to drive a fairly sharp wedge between Benjamin’s and Derrida’s sense of the messianic, arguing that the former is more "past gazing" while the latter is more future oriented, I believe it more accurate to point out, as Derrida does in Specters of Marx, that there exists a core conceptual content to the messianic in general, and this relates to, as he stated, "a thinking of the other and the event to come" and relatedly to a certain experience of an "emancipatory promise" (1994, 74). Derrida himself, however, in Ghostly Demarcations (2008), tried to drive home a subtle distinction between his model of the messianic as "Messianic without Messianism" and Benjamin’s "weak Messianic power" by stressing that he sought ". . . to mark an orientation and a break, a tendency running from weakening to annulment, from the ‘weak’ to the ‘without’—and consequently the asymptote, of a possible convergence of Benjamin’s idea with the one I would like to propose" (250).
  3. Giorgio Agamben (2005) also draws upon a concept of "Messianic time" or temporality from reflections on the links between the apostle Paul’s and Walter Benjamin’s treatment of time. Agamben’s concept is described by Sotirios Bahtsetzis as "time at the moment of a significant rupture . . . understood not as the end of time, but as the ‘time that contracts itself and begins to end’" [Agamben, quoted in Bahtsetzis (2011)].
  4. Du Bois refers to the segregated experience of "blacks in America" in terms of their "entombment" as a "submerged caste," estranged from the rest of humanity ([1940] 2007, 66–67). Michelle Alexander (2011) forcefully argues that this phenomenon has not really ended in the United States but rather has taken on the form of a different set of institutionalized practices of expulsion and entombment, given the criminalization of black communities within a new Jim Crow politics entrenching racial castes.
  5. This listing is not an attempt to be exhaustive but rather presents a select few of the leading scholars on the condition of blackness globally.
  6. For a discussion of the genealogy of the concept of racialization, see Barot and Bird (2001). David Theo Goldberg (2002), in a footnote comment on racialization, also reminds us that while this multivalent concept has often been deployed to identify attributions of racial meaning to social groups or to explore exclusionary, contradictory, or contesting standpoints that tend to rely on sociological, cultural, or biological reductions of race, Fanon, in Black Skin, White Masks, understood "to racialize" in contrast with "to humanize" (2002, 12). Thus, one needs to address not just (1) the historical situatedness of processes and practices of racialization within specific milieus of the human/"man," as indeed stressed by Sylvia Wynter (1995); one must also be sensitive to (2) their critical inflection points as articulated by the imaginary of forms of being-in-the world within racialization projects, as highlighted by the cultural studies approach within Britain, discussed by Audrey Kobayashi (2004, 242–43); and finally it is essential to recognize (3) the ineluctable comparative and temporal horizons invoked in racialization experiences and practices as animated by the education of a subject’s desire and the social exercise of a will to power and place. See Fanon ([1952] 1986), Ann Stoler (1995), Shu-Mei Shih (2008), and Crichlow and Northover (2009, 2015).
  7. I should quickly point out here that Theo Goldberg’s analysis, as set out in his powerful 2002 text on the nature of the racial state, does provide a very systematic discussion of the interpenetration of race with modern power regimes, systems, and modes of political organization. This work, however, is limited in its discussion of racial sovereignty insofar as he restricts the character of sovereignty to juridical lawmaking. As he states, "Law . . . is the generalized and generalizing apparatus of power deeply implicated in establishing state sovereignty, consolidating and reifying lines of power in modern state formation" (Goldberg, 2002, 154, my emphasis). Any quick review of the literature on sovereignty will show, however, that it is not so quickly pinned down, with different expositions offered on what constitutes sovereignty, its relationship to the state form, and its ambiguous relation in founding law. This situation leaves the concepts of both law and sovereignty bogged down in ambiguity, and the relationships between law, state power, and sovereignty rendered highly problematic. See in this regard Biersteker and Weber (1991), Margaret Davies (2001), Beaulac (2003), and Wendy Brown (2008).
  8. Hardt and Negri’s text (2000), Empire, stands out as an exception in this regard to the extent that they actively seek to trace the shifting contours of sovereignty in processes of globalization (see sec. 2 of their text). But I believe that they end up assuming veritable closed systems for analyzing power relations, given their insistence on dismissing the political efficacy or significance of the "border place"—"a place that is both inside and outside" (184). This tactic merely sidesteps some thorny issues on the character of human agency, power, and ontology, and by so doing they end up conflating material capitalist powers with sovereign dispositions. Their methodological approach thus misses the moment for deepening the analysis of the relations of forces invoked by sovereignty, forces that cannot simply be reduced to the power of capitalism as an economically hegemonic system, as argued forcefully by Wendy Brown (2008) in her astute analysis of political sovereignty.
  9. See in this regard the arguments presented by Nishiyama (2015) concerning the processes by which the biopolitics of race was appropriated by East Asia, with specific focus on Japan.
  10. See in this regard Li-Chun Hsiao (2007) and Sibylle Fischer (2004) concerning the politics of exception operating upon the Haitian body politic for securing the political boundaries of the modern free state.
  11. Charles Mills’ (1997) work on the racial contract exemplifies this dualistic analytical path insofar as the foundations for the racial contract arise largely from metaphysically abstract positions that have no need for objective warrant, but are nonetheless held to lay the basis for the construction of formal and informal agreement between subjects (or between subjects and objects). This imaginary agreement then acts as the source for asserting a successful real founding or establishing of a racial polity, thus inverting a stereotypical Marxian materialist logic on the relations between consciousness and being. For Mills, this abstract or ideal type racial contract is thus both politically instrumental and causally powerful in explaining the basis for racialized domination and experiences in the world. As he states, he wishes to use "a nonideal contract as a rhetorical trope and theoretical method for understanding the inner logic of racial domination and how it structures the polities of the West and elsewhere" (6) Unfortunately, the process dynamics of translating "rhetorical trope" into social or performative practices are left largely silenced in this provocative work.
  12. It should be noted here that the concept of hauntology is not thus opposed to the difficult work of thinking "being," and despite Derrida’s well-known political distancing from metaphysics or a certain disposition secreted in statements on ontology, his work indicates that he is still focused upon deconstructing ontology as an interrogative practice of questioning being, or rather certain statements and practices concerning being. For a further discussion of Derrida’s idea of hauntology, see Davis (2005).
  13. As W. E. B. Dubois stated in Dusk of Dawn, "Perhaps it is wrong to speak of it [race] at all as ‘a concept’ rather than a group of contradictory forces, facts and tendencies" ([1940] 2007, 67). Mara Loveman (1999), in a strong critique of Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s approach to addressing race and racism published in the American Sociological Review, advanced the view, promoted by Rogers Brubaker and Frederick Cooper, that race should not be treated as a "category of analysis" but rather as a "category of practice" (895–96).
  14. I must recognize here, of course, the comparable notion of "racializing assemblage," introduced by Weheliye (2014) in his important and critical text, Habeus Viscus. In that text, he explains that his "idea of racializing assemblages . . . construes race not as a biological or cultural classification but as a set of sociopolitical processes that discipline humanity into full humans, not-quite-humans and the nonhumans" (12). I wish to point out that while sharing with Weheliye a desire to deepen the analysis of racial formations beyond that offered in Foucault, for example, and while likewise drawing inspiration from the conceptual work of Deleuze and Guattari (1987), Wynter (2003), and Spiller (1987), the approach to thinking "race assemblages," which I sketch in this essay, is quite distinct in its methodological orientation and mode of analysis regarding the problem of race. My main rationale for calling upon the concept of assemblage here is, first, to simply introduce a specific way of methodologically gathering the different generative elements at play when invoking the notion of race, and second, to support a certain form of relational thinking that attends to "semiotic flows, material flows and social flows simultaneously," as noted by Deleuze and Guattari (23). My approach furthermore seeks to follow a methodological track put forward by Saskia Sassen in her rich and meticulous (2006) text on the nature of globalization, where she argues that "one cannot understand x by confining oneself to the characteristics of x." To do this, she notes, would be to succumb to an "endogenity trap." Accordingly, one must seek to explain x in terms of the non-x and thus ask the question of "how do we get from non-x to x?" (Sassen 2006, 4).
  15. As Wendy Brown (2008) comments in a recent discussion, what sovereignty is has been a subject that has recently attracted numerous critical, philosophical, and political reflections; thus, as Beaulac (2003) notes, it has been given numerous interpretations in the literature. Indeed, as Wendy Brown (2008, 252) observes, the term is an "unusually amorphous, illusive, and polysemic term of political life." Nonetheless, sovereignty is also a word that is often spoken of, or invoked, as if we know what it is that we are talking about, and the word carries with it the aura of an authority relationship. See, in this regard, the discussion by David Lake (2003).
  16. Wendy Brown offers to outline key elements of the sovereign relation in social life. In particular, she highlights that sovereignty is a "peculiar border concept" that demarcates the boundaries of an entity and, in so doing, gives or sets terms for "organizing the space both inside and outside the entity" (2008, 253). It is thus typical to speak of political sovereignty as related to an inner sphere of supreme authority and an outer sphere of independence or autonomy. It is important, though, not to conflate sovereignty with the state form. Rather, sovereignty operates as a phenomenon with irreducible properties. Schmidt presents sovereignty as "he who decides the exception." In this frame, sovereignty is not shared and is unified in itself. However, the recent turn in the literature seeks to treat sovereignty as a social construct based on the processes of recognition in international law and the interstate system, and thus as a social relation. However, it is a peculiar social construct, riddled with paradoxes, and demands a quite unique relation with the social body.
  17. As Wendy Brown (2008, 254) notes, this is "a reminder that all political sovereignty is modelled on that religiously attributed to God." A similar point is made by Derrida (2005, esp. chap. 1, "The Free Wheel"). Such sovereignty, moreover, as Derrida points out, is not limited to the monarch but is made to extend to "the people" and the figure, concept, and history of freedom. This force of sovereignty thus saturates the modalities of modern power.
  18. This is a point that has been most forcefully taken up by Kameron Carter and integrated in his own analysis of the problem of race. See in this regard his innovative text (2008) and his (2013) edited special issue on "Religion and the Futures of Blackness" in the South Atlantic Quarterly.
  19. Fred Moten, in his brilliant 2013 essay, offers I believe a profound examination of blackness by and large in the core terms of a sovereign relation of forces. However, I do not wish to claim that his insights are merely mirroring the point I state above, since he offers a very layered and complex analysis of blackness provoked by, among other things, Fanon’s work, Afro-pessimism, Buddhist thought, and music.
  20. The concept of place has been given diverse treatments in the literature, ranging from the phenomenological perspectives to that of spatial theory in geography and architecture. The framework orienting this essay is drawn more from philosophical treatments of place and its production, drawing explicitly from Elden’s (2001) discussions on Heidegger.
  21. This, no doubt, brings to mind Orlando Patterson’s classic and controversial but useful heuristic notion of bodies in "natal alienation" and "social death" by virtue of their negative dialectical relation with a colonial sovereignty, as elaborated in his seminal text, Slavery and Social Death (1982). I believe this text’s significance lies not so much in disclosing the contradictions of modern freedom/liberty which it does well, though controversially. This is the case insofar as he places the accent on the death of the social and so appears to diminish the actual, and indeed profound, creative capacities or powers at play during slavery, which are producing Creole social life, as emphasized by many scholars, most notably Vincent Brown (2008). More importantly from my perspective, his work helps to bring into clear relief the "structure of disavowal" entailed in a modern sovereign relation of forces, which persists beyond formal slave histories.
  22. For an interesting discussion, from the perspective of architecture/spatial theory, of the notions on nonplace, no place, and bodies being "out of place," see Gunnar Sandin (2003). And for a more philosophical treatment of place, see J. E. Malpas (1999).
  23. For a fascinating analysis of the work that zombies do in sustaining both practices and memories of a racial economy of death and excess, see Elizabeth McAlister (2012).


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