“Am I Next?” Black Lives Matter, Jouissance and the Apocalypse of White Desire

I had the feeling that I was repeating a cycle. – Frantz Fanon

How to heal this rupture everywhere? How to remember and re-enact for a coming justice not yet here? If there is one thing to take from Black Lives Matter, it is that we are the living dead transmigrants of black ghosts and white desires. That we are, all of us, haunted, but never equally, and this being-with-ghosts reveals itself (most dramatically) through black death, through the repetition of white desire centuries old. In this present disjuncture, the past seems to encroach on all possible futures. The present appears a fatal trap, through which we, as mere memetic sites of discourse, carry onwards towards determined life and death.

I contest this notion through an examination of Black Lives Matter, drawing on Fanon, Bhabha, Lacan, Irigaray and, of course, Derrida. I explore the limits and possible ruptures of hauntology and discourse, unto an apocalypse of the future, and thus, an end to this fatal present. In the first section, I explore futurity as a totalitarian structuring of the possible. In the second section, I explore the mourning practices of Black Lives Matter as performances of past deaths. In the third section, I explore melancholia, mourning and hysteria. And in the last section, I explore black jouissance, white eschatology and emancipation as an unveiling of nothingness.

Ferguson activist Edward Crawford holds a bag of chips as he returns a cannister of tear gas back to the police
Figure 1: Ferguson activist Edward Crawford holds a bag of chips as he returns a cannister of tear gas back to the police.

∞ Fatal Futures ∞

A feeling of inferiority? No, a feeling of nonexistence. – Frantz Fanon

In No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive, Edelman (2004) describes politics as driven by the fascism of The Child—a reproductive futurism evoked to preserve the heteronormative status quo. Through the collapsing of politics, futurity and reproduction, The Child comes to stand for life—an ideological justification for the current political order (Sothern, 2007, 183-184). The Queer, standing in opposition to biological reproduction, becomes negation of The Child—jouissance unto a new (symbolic) world order—a world without a future. Rather than contest this (originally conservative) narrative, Edelman (2004) wholeheartedly embraces it. Queerness is here to destroy the future so that the fatal and fatalistic repetition of the present can end. Much of Edelman’s (2004) analysis can be applied to black lives through a re-encoding of the Child as White; The Queer as Black; and reproductive futurism as economic rather than biological. The White Child becomes the motivating force towards the reproduction of capitalist relations birthed in the era of the transatlantic slave trade; and like queerness, blackness is cast into ontological damnation—effaced, but at the same time, effacing (Pokornowski, 2016, 4-5).

Butler explores this dimension of existence through Precarious Life. While we all live with precariousness—a standing vulnerability towards risk, harm and death—precarity is exacerbated by power-relations, institutional distributions of vulnerability across the social order[2] (Perhamus & Joldersma, 2016, 58-59). The mattering of black lives is dependent on our material and symbolic structures and practices which work to represent and perform class, race, gender, sexuality, ableness and more. Blackness, however, here and in the past, has been devalued through symbolic violence unto material death—philosophical texts, adventure novels and news narratives; practices of slavery, lynching, mass incarceration and police violence; inequality unto worsening education, work, housing and healthcare. Such conditions are exacerbated for women and queers of colour who face additional intersectional violences, committed in private domestic and work spaces unimaged by cellphones and cameras[1] (Threadcraft, 2017).

Seattle activists protest against the grand jury’s decision not to indict Darren Wilson, the policeman who shot Michael Brown to death.
Figure 2: Seattle activists protest against the grand jury’s decision not to indict Darren Wilson, the policeman who shot Michael Brown to death.

To be black is to always be aware of death; haunted across space and time by the inhuman, by the negation of one’s subjectivity through existential and physical violence (the destruction of agency, and thus, one’s ability to assert oneself as human). Interpreted through The White Child as a negating force, blackness comes to be seen as vulnerable, and thus, dangerous (Pokornowski, 2016). No matter one’s conduct, one is physically marked—discernible through skin colour alone. One is interpellated transhistorically—by the police officer, slave owner and imperialist, all at once (Althusser, 1971). As Fanon (2008, 106) states in Black Skin, White Masks “Not yet white, no longer wholly black, I was damned”; not yet American, no longer African, hybridity leaves one nowhere and yet utterly contained; unable to escape blackness and enter the white world, but conversely, unable to affirm blackness in the face of “tom-toms, cannibalism, intellectual deficiency, fetichism, racial defects, slave-ships, and above all else, above all: “Sho’ good eatin’” (Fanon, 2008, 84). One’s blackness is not one’s own.

The imperialist spook haunts black lives, a force neither dead nor alive, but forever arriving, structuring what may come, to the detriment of black lives now (Derrida, 2006). Threadcraft (2017, 554-555) quotes Clint Smith’s Racism, Stress, and Black Death to show that black people need not directly experience discrimination to be harmed; merely perceiving discrimination can lead to chronic stress and ill health. Violence transcends space and time to grip every black life unto an anticipation of ever worsening precarity.

A Los Angeles activist with her mouth taped over in memory of Eric Garner’s last words “I can’t breathe” repeated eleven times as he was choked to death by policeman Daniel Pantaleo.
Figure 3: A Los Angeles activist with her mouth taped over in memory of Eric Garner’s last words “I can’t breathe” repeated eleven times as he was choked to death by policeman Daniel Pantaleo.

∞ Performing Death ∞

When we revolt it’s not for a particular culture. We revolt simply because, for many reasons, we can no longer breathe. – Frantz Fanon

Black Lives Matter arose out of death—out of the real bodies made absent by modern day lynch mobs, more commonly called the police. As Bataille (1988) puts it, life comes to fill all spaces. Life flourishes in the lacunae left by State-supported killings. Out of the negative space of Trayvon Martin, black lives were made to matter across social media; hashtags spilling out of digital platforms into physical protests and marches (Powell, 2016). Out of the negative space of Michael Brown, the streets of Ferguson filled with a rage and grief Powell (2016, 253-254) compares to that of the Haiti Revolution. Performances repeat on the stage of history—the after-images of past injustices re-embodied through new actors and contexts (Figure 1; Figure 2). The melancholia of historical cruelties (never directly experienced, but nonetheless, felt) intermixes with the mourning of contemporary losses. Black lives who’ve never felt they mattered; white lives made to realise their mattering—so common sense an ontology it’s barely felt.

The contemporary haunt of ontological mattering arises out of more than police violence, but also the discourses that legitimate them. Core to Black Lives Matter is a contestation over culture—specifically, the narratives constructed to legitimate violence towards blacks. News industries utilised media necropower to represent black bodies as threatening to the social order, and thus, in need of effacement. The appropriate state of the black body was made into one of absence (Perhamus & Joldersma, 2016; Pokornowski, 2016). One of the most powerful rituals of Black Lives Matters, which worked against this discourse, was the symbolic immortalisation of the deceased through the dissemination, reproduction, and embodiment of their final words. In this retooling of necropower, the last moments of the dead are captured and performed through the living. Slogans such as “I Can’t Breathe” (Figure 3) and “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” (Figure 4) represented the vulnerability, the utter precarity of black life, and by extension, the precariousness of all life. Whether a black life was a “thug” or not became irrelevant (Figure 5). The gaze was refocused from the character of the individual to that of the interaction—to the concentration of necropower into a colonial white masculinist subset of the population (Figure 6). Police violence was estranged of its authority and transfigured obscene, cruel and inhuman.

Ferguson activists re-enacting the last moments of Michael Brown.
Figure 4: Ferguson activists re-enacting the last moments of Michael Brown.

The loss of elsewhere, of another time, arrives here and now; the same process of Othering, through new means, new agents and new institutions. The slogan “Am I Next?” (Figure 7) calls not only the phantom of Michael Brown or Rekia Boyd, but the phantoms of every black life taken too soon by white futurity; cyclical capitalism masked by the liberal ideology of progress, the spiral weave of exploitation unto ever greater levels of alienation. “Am I Next?” disrupts the boundaries of the neoliberal subject, always-already encroached on by forces outside of its control—histories woven into facticity; space and time, theory and praxis. “Am I Next?” anticipates the future as a cyclical evocation of the past unto a timeless present.

These continuing bonds with the dead transcend familial space to reside in the black imaginary. More than memory, these bonds escape the personal to link with manifold black deaths unto the formation of a political principle—a rallying call against injustice (Klass, 2001). If futurity is only the anticipation of further grief, then the future must end. The cycle of grief, mourning and rage repeats, in the hopes of repeating no more—in the hopes of overcoming futurity, and perhaps, finally, the colonial trauma of the past. The goal of the black spectre then, is the effacement of its own existence so that the black lives of the present are effaced no more. Haunted by unbearable trauma, black lives irrupt into mass mobilisation—a performative hysteria of dispossession that desires beyond rational discourse; that defies voice unto jouissance, the dissolution of all boundaries and barricades previously erected by a white supremacist social order incapable of incorporating blacks except through assimilation and death (Edelman, 2004; Grosz, 1986).

Two photos of Michael Brown from the digital campaign #IfTheyGunnedMeDown, a contestation of the media’s framing of blacks as thugs, always-already deserving of death.
Figure 5: Two photos of Michael Brown from the digital campaign #IfTheyGunnedMeDown, a contestation of the media’s framing of blacks as thugs, always-already deserving of death.

∞ Melancholic Matter ∞

Of justice where it is not yet, not yet there, where it is no longer, let us understand where it is no longer present, and where it will never be – Jacques Derrida

Grief cannot end, while the future remains. Through Black Lives Matter, neoliberal conceptions of grief and subjectivity are contested. Black Lives Matter reconfigures grief, from the subject in destitution, to the world in destitution (and thus, the world in need of change). This grief is driven by both the melancholia of a loss that cannot be placed, and the mourning of real lives lost through unjust death (Freud, 1917; Powell, 2016, 256-57). While liberalism may formally promise justice, equality and liberty, our actual experiences of it may contradict this (Eagleton, 1994, 118). What is lost in disillusionment is an object that has never existed—an object that was a projection of the ego the whole time. What is lost is ourselves. This grief works doubly through living black bodies devalued unto nothingness and deceased black bodies, literally, no longer here. Like the lost object of melancholia, these absent bodies retreat into the living becoming ghostly puppeteers, the performative force behind spontaneous and viral memorialisations across the world (Freud, 1917; Powell, 2016, 256-257).

Grief becomes the death drive unto das Ding, the thing that will shatter the present order and free us from the fascist White Child (and ourselves)—the cyclical return of white pleasure unto infinite variations of the same (Evans, 2006, 93-94; Sothern, 2007, 183-185). Read through Marx, the pleasure principle eerily mirrors capitalism’s capacity to aestheticise resistance, and thus, recuperate it into the commodity market. Edelman’s (2004) solution to this is to see Queerness (in our case, Blackness) as its utter destruction, the negation of a fascistic futurity that does not allow for us to imagine life without a future, that structures existence always-already towards “a Child who must never grow up” (21) at the expense of the living, ageing and dying population of now (Sothern, 2007, 183-185). In other words, it is only without a future, that anything becomes possible.

Ferguson activist confronted by a group police for breaking curfew.
Figure 6: Ferguson activist confronted by a group police for breaking curfew.

Grief as the productive drive of Black Lives Matter disrupts the West’s long obsession with gendered binaries, and thus, the West’s symbolic foundation for identity. Grief, rather than an impediment, a chaotic feminine state that must be overcome by masculine rationality for labour to resume, becomes the source of productivity, but one that works counter to capitalist desire. Through the politicisation of mourning, grief is weaponised, socially legitimated as it spreads across digital and material spaces. The absence left by death is traced by ritual, and this ritual gives meaning to those still alive–inscribing the lives of both dead and living with new values, norms and desire. Black Lives Matter makes grief public, productive and loud—a far cry from western modernity’s sequestration of death and mourning into ever more private and professional sites (Gibson, 2011). The jouissance of Black Lives Matter takes on a social formation as bodies spill into the streets; mouths taped over in memory of Eric Garner’s last words “I Can’t Breathe,” (Figure 3) repeated eleven times before suffocation (Powell, 2016, 254); arms raised to the sky like a ghostly vision of Michael Brown’s last moments (Figure 4), set to replay forever more through corporeal possession. Death’s absence reveals itself through bodily enactment, hysterical jouissance, infinite variations of the same black death (Figure 7).

The flesh of the living is given to the dead, so that the dead may live again; and this second life (and third and fourth and fifth . . .) makes vulnerable all whom it possesses. “I Am Michael Brown,” (Figure 8) the living dead reincarnation of a body never granted life to begin with. Pokornowski (2016, 7) relays that the zombie of Haitian fame arose after “the importation of Africans to Haiti (and the Caribbean at large) as slave labourers” leading to an entangling of West African, Indigenous Caribbean, and Christian spiritual and cultural beliefs. “[T]he zombie emerge[s] as a figure of life made beastly, of humanity turned into a beast of burden, of slavery that [does] not end in death” (Pokornowski, 2016, 7). Transfigured by western literature and cinema, the zombie comes to bear “blackness, disability, animality, and biomedicalized dehumanization,” post-human yet haunted by the trauma of the transatlantic slave trade (Pokornowski, 2016, 9; Powell, 2016). Conceived out of black vulnerability, reconfigured by white culture as threatening, the zombie is damned to unending death—to return to live, over and again, simply, so that it may die.

Black Lives Matter activist holding up placard “Am I Next?” to highlight the history of police violence in black communities.
Figure 7: Black Lives Matter activist holding up placard “Am I Next?” to highlight the history of police violence in black communities.

∞ Ending Desire ∞

In the experience of the end, in its insistent, instant, always imminently eschatological coming, at the extremity of the extreme today, there would thus be announced the future of what comes. – Jacques Derrida

This resurrectionary derangement of time and space, this transmigration of violence unto the present—let us name it white desire, and its opposition, black jouissance. In the living death of now, black ontology is a fixed rupture, or perhaps, more accurately, a fixed repetition of rupturing. Blackness is to whiteness death; that which disturbs the standing order and casts meaning into the void. Blackness is already dead, its walking corpse an uncanny reminder of white abjection, of blood from the open body of imperialism, a blood white America cannot bear as its own least the performative suffering of five centuries crush the phantasmal liberal-humanist ego (Kristeva, 1982). And so white America continues the ritual slaughter of black lives in unconscious mourning of its inadequacy and in conscious consolidation of its power. White desire and black jouissance both haunted by empire, from the respective positions of master and slave.

At the spiritual core of the biopolitical order lies white eschatology—the promise of afterlife through the conduct of now—a categorical imperative that sets white lives in need of saving from black bodies, registered as the abject return of the trauma at the core of the nation’s founding (Foucault, 2003; Kristeva, 1982). The nation must be saved from itself, but caught in repressed deferral, white eschatology fixes the world into an indefinite saving. Paradise becomes the forestallment of apocalypse, a gospel of arrival (that never arrives) (Sothern, 2007, 184). If The White Child were to grow up, after all, it would comprehend the desolation and horror of the world, and thus, herald the end[3] (Edelman, 2004; Sothern, 2007, 184).

Lesley McSpadden, mother of Michael Brown, hugging an unidentified man atop a car, as she listens to the a radio report on the grand jury’s decision not to indict Darren Wilson, murderer of her son Michael Brown.
Figure 9: Lesley McSpadden, mother of Michael Brown, hugging an unidentified man atop a car, as she listens to the a radio report on the grand jury’s decision not to indict Darren Wilson, murderer of her son Michael Brown.

This is the threat of black hauntology to white America. This abjection, transvaluated into mattering and performed into presence, sets joy against desire, a joy that explodes black ontology, overdetermined from without, unto bodily hysteria—transgression beyond the present symbolic order, and thus, identity (Evans, 2006, 93-94; Fanon, 2008; Grosz, 1986; Kristeva, 1982). Black jouissance does not merely herald the apocalypse—it is the apocalypse: an unveiling, a revelation, an end (Miller, 1996, 207). White desire, like capitalist desire, creates its own gravediggers; overdetermination unto overcompliance unto the maddening death of whiteness (Bhabha, 1984; Grosz, 1986; Marx & Engels, 2004).

Black jouissance cannot, and does not, wish to grant a future. Overdetermined by both history and futurity, the only choice is to overcomply unto an uncanny shattering of both. In truth, I do not know if Black Lives Matter will succeed; if it is even possible to succeed. It is so easy, after all, for the white/capitalist psyche to simply recuperate all that troubles and disrupts into the signifying realm of the incomprehensible, irrational and abnormal. However, I see no reason to stop struggling, for finding new ways of struggling, for only at The White Child’s adolescent apocalypse will we unveil a present yet to take form, all the more seductive for its ontological nothingness (Baudrillard, 1990). We unveil what cannot be seen, perhaps, because there is nothing to see; perhaps, because only in this nothingness, in this intransigible realm free of capitalist rationality, predictability and progress, can the black haunt finally devour itself, and in the same stroke, that of its white master; put to end the legacy of colonialism so we may be haunted anew, by different ghosts, of a different spirit, of a different world.

Staging for the end of history. Let us call it a hauntology. – Jacques Derrida


Footnotes
1 Camera footage which has been vital to Black Lives Matter, through its power to mobilise affect and inculcate emotional responses such as rage and grief.
2 Poverty, rape, transphobia, mass incarceration, imperialism and war, to name a few.
3 And in this end to innocence, we would hope, the beginning of wisdom would arise (Virilio, 1989).

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