Impossible Belonging

If the sharp end of critique’s job is to name injury, then it also has a soft lining that is oriented around recovery and repair. Even if a particular critical project stays with injury rather than ...

If the sharp end of critique’s job is to name injury, then it also has a soft lining that is oriented around recovery and repair. Even if a particular critical project stays with injury rather than whatever might come after, what else is there to want, in the wake of naming injury, but to fix it? Both writers and readers of such critiques are thrust into a morality tale, the drama of selves differentiating right from wrong, where the payoff is the resolution of the pain that initiated the story. An oscillation is immediately established: critique–repair, injury–healing, marginalization–visibility, exclusion–inclusion. And in this oscillation we find the roots of a familiar form of collectivity, a “we” galvanized by shared histories of violence.

Often this “we” is the express goal of social, cultural, and historical critique; sometimes it is unintentional or secondary. Stephen Best’s newest book, None Like Us: Blackness, Belonging, Aesthetic Life, asks about the specific ways this “we” has functioned in the relationship between a history of subjection anchored in the brutal past of racial slavery and the present tense of living on. It wants to know what hindrances to building worlds together exist in the ways that slavery has been approached and read, where so many otherwise disparate approaches seem to share a desire: to find commonality either in what can be recovered from such a past, or in what injuries can be identified there.

Best finds sources of speculative thought about what might ground a different sort of “we” in works of art and archival traces that invite experiments in a certain “style” of freedom that he feels literary critics have not yet been willing to envision or risk. This style is precisely what Best’s cases have in common—sometimes the only thing. These cases include Toni Morrison’s novel A Mercy, El Anatsui’s “shimmering, throwaway-aluminum constructions,” Mark Bradford’s “layered paper canvases,” and Gwendolyn Brooks’s free-verse poems.1 The archival cases that anchor the second half of the book draw from stories of rumor and suicide in the slave archives of the 18th and 19th centuries. Rumor and suicide in that context, as Best says, constitute the intellectual origins of None Like Us, because of the ways they insistently rebuffed Best’s own early attempts to study and know them, the ways those stories seem to be as much a product of fabulation, even of historical need, as they are a matter of truth or fact.2 Best teaches us, because writing this book taught him, how to find pleasure in being rebuffed by our own objects of study.

Best acknowledges the “forensic” pleasures of exploring what has been lost in the past of racial slavery—the occlusions, omission, distortions, and erasures. But what such erasures do not do, Best argues, here diverging from his interlocutors, is constitute a “we.” This will be controversial; Best acknowledges this. Some will dispute his characterization of black studies’ “communitarian impulse.” Some might point to the elasticity and provisionality of any presumptive “we”—its tactical nature. These are conversations that Best invites. But Best’s point throughout is to stay with the promise and the pleasure of critical postures—relations to self and to history—that are easy to confuse with violence itself.

For Best, difficulty, the resistance of his objects of study to his own inquiries, calls out not to be deciphered but emulated.

To mark this confusion as one the book will have to carefully navigate, None Like Us begins with a discussion of the different ways that both Best and James Baldwin found themselves, as young men, estranged from their fathers. Despite the very different reasons for the sons’ estrangement, both stories direct Best to think about how black life regenerates itself precisely across such fractures of dispossession and disaffiliation, how black life and queer life are intimately related in this way. So, for Best, disaffiliation is not just the mark of violence done to a people who should want to redress such injuries by imagining forms of positive, corrective affiliation. It is also a resource for survival and, counterintuitively, for being with others—being with others in, for instance, the shared recognition that any effort to end racial violence and hatred, if successful, can never end the kinds of disaffiliation and suffering that might have driven the movement in the first place. Critique, so oriented, doesn’t dream of an end to the pain of disaffiliation; it seeks a more equal distribution of it and a wider acknowledgment of its place and possibility.

Blackness, in this sense, is held together by disaffiliation; it is a history of experiments with unmaking the self and the world that Cedric Robinson and others have called “the black radical tradition.”3 This impossibility is not only a historical fact to be acknowledged; it is, for Best, an aspect of black life to be retained and nurtured. This is where the book’s resonances with queer theory are strongest, especially with the work of Leo Bersani and, more recently, John Paul Ricco.4 But there is also much common ground—for instance, in the interest in dispossession and disaffiliation as non-property-based forms of collectivity and being—between Best’s work and the scholars (Fred Moten, Jared Sexton, Saidiya Hartman, Frank Wilderson, Hortense Spillers) with whom he might otherwise seem to be in disagreement.

In the interest of forging a different kind of relationship between the slave past and black life in the present, Best has sought out artworks and archival encounters that do not gather themselves around an identity, a past, a coherent reading. Rather, they disintegrate upon contact, exhausting themselves in their resistance to any easy resolution between the traumas of the past and those of the present. In other words, Best seeks out encounters (whether artistic or archival) that can’t be possessed in the interest of defining a self or a group as coherent, unified, complete. Such encounters issue an invitation to notice a certain fraying around the edges of the self.5 This fraying, however, isn’t what jeopardizes a self. It is what dislodges the desire for and defense of a coherent self.

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Toward the Black Girl Future

By Jehan Roberson

The critical position Best elaborates could sound like aesthetic difficulty.6 It might also sound like an extension of postmodernist constructivism. It is, in fact, opposed to both. None Like Us resists the ways that modernist difficulty has tended to produce insiders and outsiders, and so avoids precisely the kinds of subjectivities (intellectual, knowing, critical, self-conscious) aggrandized and consolidated by the discourse of difficulty.

For Best, difficulty, the resistance of his objects of study to his own inquiries, calls out not to be deciphered but emulated; it is, therefore, not the text that is difficult—intransigent, resistant, opaque—but the interpreting self that becomes difficult, resistant, fleeting. The point isn’t that all selves are constructed and so illusory, sustained through repetition and disruptable through parody.7 It’s that the very idea of a coherent, knowable self—for instance, a liberal self endowed with rights and freedoms—has been one of the central weapons in a long history of dividing the world up into populations in order to deny resources, and ultimately life, to some of those populations.8

It’s also important not to see all of this as the negative space-clearing needed to then articulate a positive description of race or racial collectivity. Best wants an escape from the stranglehold of options that places negative or critical projects on one side (as in: race is a structure of oppression) in order to exalt positive ones on the other (therefore: we must free ourselves from race). Structural violence and creative overcoming, occlusion and recovery, social death and black social life, structure and agency—these are all structuring oppositions that Best feels have been dictated by by the ways in which contemporary black studies interprets slavery as a galvanizing past. Best refers to this oscillation as “melancholy historicism” (melancholy “weds ‘an inability to forget what cannot be remembered’ to an ‘obligation to see what has not been seen’”), a descriptor that refers maybe most immediately to Afro-pessimism, but that applies equally to any project, reparative or paranoid, that identifies violence or occlusion as a positive source of affiliation.9 Reading, looking, describing—the activities that comprise what Best calls “aesthetic life”—are all scenes of a nascent and differently oriented collectivity: a chance, if to not be together or feel united, then to sense the terms, boundaries, and, most of all, the limits of one’s belonging to the world, even to a hypothetically less racist one.10

Best has sought out artworks and archival encounters that do not gather themselves around an identity, a past, a coherent reading.

In other words, Best is not at all interested in modeling a better form of historicism that would ignore or bracket slavery (he, too, looks back to slavery’s archive, in the latter half of the book). What he wants to highlight are the presumptive conditions of belonging that make certain kinds of historical aims possible in the first place, either uniting people in a shared history, a common pain, or not. He wants to ask what is lost when we presume, as any recovery project must, that, in descriptions of historical violence or its overcoming, we can recognize the voices of those lost in the archive of slavery or its afterlives; we can make sense of their lives, their absences, the violence that marked them and continues to mark them as invisible to future generations; we can enlist them in ongoing collectivizing projects.

It follows, then, that None Like Us defies any attempt to market the book to particular audiences (the back cover lists “African American Studies / Queer Theory”). Marketing categories name an identity—presume the existence of that identity, claim to know something about it in order to cater to it. But Best’s argument is that black study and black life, indeed, his own book, can be received, read, and deployed through something other than identification (whether that of political solidarity, liberal empathy, or the counter-identification of phobic disdain).

There is a horizon here that Best opens up even if he doesn’t dwell in it. None Like Us begins as an intervention into black studies. To accomplish this, it turns to works of art and invention by people whom history has needed to be black.11 But as it unravels any claim to genre, discipline, field, identity, or audience, the book issues a broad invitation to the reader to see black studies and queer theory, black and queer life, not as identities to inhabit, but as critical perspectives on history and on a present tense that has been so scarred by various melodramas of the self—of its defense, self-possession, and propriety—that have played themselves out on both sides of anti-racist critique.12

This is how the book begins to speak to any field that sees itself as trying to better understand the historical present, very much including my own field, media studies, whose objects of study have made opposition so hard to imagine and therefore so desperately desired (witness the tortured debates about whether or not to leave Facebook). Complaints about the anomie of social media and our dispossession by data technologies look very different when seen in Best’s terms, where the goal isn’t to recover the self from whatever besets it and fractures its elective communities.

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Black Speculation, Black Freedom

By Petal Samuel

What does it mean to want to raze the world and rebuild around the one thing that cannot hold anything together, namely the sense of “unfitness” around which black and queer worlds have long been built, both out of necessity and out of the sheer joy of riotousness? It means that every act of reading, of viewing, of criticism, of ordinary experience or complaint, of archival digging or cruising is an opportunity to notice an unexpected connection: that the desires animating queer and black radical thought oriented toward the future share a structure with queer and black kinship oriented toward the past. Namely, both exist across insuperable gaps, owing their critical orientation precisely to the existence of those gaps, not their eradication.

Baldwin’s father’s resentment, Best’s father’s pride: the stories of filial estrangement with which Best began the book are evidence of violence both historical and ongoing. But both, Best argues, have also been resources for living on, for surviving and imagining better worlds. This is how Best ultimately comes to understand that pride and shame, belonging and disaffiliation, share a structure (even if they don’t feel the same). It’s of course possible to see in this structure the evidence of dispossessive violence and want it expunged in the interest of a better, more unified world. Best sees in it a structure of queer black affiliation, built from an unpropitious start in disaffiliation, that has managed to sustain life, to provide resources for survival and unruly being-together, and that models a form of politics fundamentally motivated by a desire not to reproduce any part of the world as it is, with all of the losses that that will entail, including, eventually, the loss of one’s own self. icon

  1. Toni Morrison, A Mercy (Knopf, 2008); Gwendolyn Brooks, In the Mecca: Poems (Harper & Row, 1968); Gwendolyn Brooks, Riot (Broadside, 1969).
  2. Tavia Nyong’o, Afro-Fabulations: The Queer Drama of Black Life (NYU Press, 2018).
  3. Cedric J. Robinson, Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition (University of North Carolina Press, 2000).
  4. Key texts for Best are: Leo Bersani, “Is the Rectum a Grave?,” October, vol. 43 (1987); Leo Bersani, Homos (Harvard University Press, 1996); Leo Bersani, “Sociality and Sexuality,” Critical Inquiry, vol. 26, no. 4 (2000). Best doesn’t cite Ricco, but the resonances are substantial. See John Paul Ricco, The Decision Between Us: Art and Ethics in the Time of Scenes (University of Chicago Press, 2014); John Paul Ricco, “The Commerce of Anonymity,” Qui Parle: Critical Humanities and Social Sciences, vol. 26, no. 1 (2017).
  5. Here one gets a sense of how Best deploys his understanding of aesthetics as a kind of gentle invitation to emulation, to what he calls mimesis as “spooning” or “cuddling.”
  6. Modernist aesthetics are often characterized by the “difficulty” of its art (e.g., poetry or abstract art), which either gets read as elitist or as innovative. Such debates have persisted in more recent discussions of so-called “academic prose.” A few key texts include: George Steiner, On Difficulty, and Other Essays (Oxford University Press, 1978); Dinitia Smith, “When Ideas Get Lost in Bad Writing; Attacks on Scholars Include a Barbed Contest With ‘Prizes,’New York Times, February 27, 1999; Judith Butler, “A ‘Bad Writer’ Bites Back,” New York Times, March 20, 1999.
  7. Judith Butler, “Imitation and Gender Insubordination,” in The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, edited by Henry Abelove, Michèle Aina Barale, and David M. Halperin (Routledge, 1993).
  8. Black feminists have been making this argument for a long time. See Saidiya V. Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (Oxford University Press, 1997); Hortense J. Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” Diacritics, vol. 17, no. 2 (1987); Sylvia Wynter, “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, After Man, Its Overrepresentation—An Argument,” CR: The New Centennial Review, vol. 3, no. 3 (2003).
  9. Best also calls this a “tort historicism.” Best discusses Orlando Patterson and Saidiya Hartman in particular, but also Hegel. For a primer on the contested nature of Afro-pessimism, see Jared Sexton, “The Social Life of Social Death: On Afro-Pessimism and Black Optimism,” InTensions, no. 5 (Fall/Winter 2011); Fred Moten, “Blackness and Nothingness (Mysticism in the Flesh),” South Atlantic Quarterly, vol. 112, no. 4 (2013). The distinction between reparative and paranoid criticism draws from Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, “Paranoid Reading, Reparative Reading, or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay Is About You,” in Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (Duke University Press, 2003). While these are not terms mobilized directly in None Like Us, Best does draw on Touching Feeling.
  10. Queer theory has called this “negativity,” or, in a very different and in some ways opposed vein, “shared separation” (Ricco) or “unavowable community” (Blanchot). Ricco, The Decision Between Us; Maurice Blanchot, The Unavowable Community (Station Hill, 1988).
  11. I’m riffing here on James Baldwin’s famous essay “On Being White … and Other Lies,” Essence (April 1984).
  12. In this vein, Alexander Weheliye refers to “blackness as a category of analysis”: Alexander G. Weheliye, “Engendering Phonographies: Sonic Technologies of Blackness,” Small Axe, vol. 18, no. 2 (2014), p. 182. Along with None Like Us, examples of works that understand queer or black life as “categories of analysis” rather than identity categories include Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, The Epistemology of the Closet (University of California Press, 1990); Frank B. Wilderson, Red, White & Black: Cinema and the Structure of U.S. Antagonisms (Duke University Press, 2010); Robinson, Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition.
Featured image: Installation shot of A Fateful Journey: Africa in the Works of El Anatsui at the National Museum of Ethnology, Osaka (September 16–December 7, 2010). Photograph by muzina_shanghai / Flickr