JUNE 29, 2020
IN THE 1980s, African American painter Kerry James Marshall began experimenting with black-on-black portraiture. In works like Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self (1980) and Invisible Man (1986), Marshall’s subjects are discernible only by the whites of their eyes and teeth — eyes averted upward in a gesture both caustic and jocular, teeth caught somewhere between grimace and smile. The painter dramatizes this dynamic in Two Invisible Men (The Lost Portraits) (1985) and Two Invisible Men Naked (1985), which both place similarly blacked-out figures opposite seemingly blank white panels. These diptychs make explicit what the others merely suggest: you are looking at what you cannot see. Or, put otherwise, you can only see what you cannot discern.
Marshall’s works of the period constitute a kind of minimum viable product of black visual representation, offering the viewer just enough to make out a black figure (eyes and teeth) but no more. It is no coincidence, then, that these portraits veer uncomfortably close to the imagery of minstrel stereotype. Marshall exaggerates this effect in Silence is Golden (1986), where the subject’s eyes seem impossibly to point upward in opposite directions, its mouth curling to a wide smile, two fingers resting upon the upper lip. We could say that this pose betrays an endearing bashfulness, but we would be mistaken. The figure is being coy: we are not in on the joke; it knows something we don’t know. We are only granted access to the fact of our lack of access. The subject’s gaze implores us, ultimately, to enjoy the silence.
Recent books by Tavia Nyong’o and Stephen Best help us understand how works like Marshall’s black-on-black portraiture might furnish a set of methods and concepts for studying black life and culture across time and medium. And they show how phenomena central to Marshall’s paintings of the period — shadowing, invisibility, silence — can be understood not as troublesome evasions of the dilemmas and delights of black life but rather as conscious strategies that remain central to black aesthetics. By foregrounding crucial modes of disappearance, withdrawal, obfuscation, and eclipse found across diverse examples of contemporary art, literature, and performance, Best and Nyong’o further renegotiate the terms of ongoing debates in literary studies, queer theory, and black thought most broadly.
In Afro-Fabulations: The Queer Drama of Black Life (NYU Press, 2018), Tavia Nyong’o convenes a sundry ensemble of modern and contemporary black art and performance to examine what he describes, riffing on William James, as “the varieties of afro-fabulative experience.” This phrase does not signify a single, specific object or method as much as it encompasses a set of practices and phenomena appearing (and disappearing) across media. Across eight chapters, the book moves from Adrian Piper’s “Mythic Being” persona to Kara Walker’s massive sugar installation A Subtlety (2014), Samuel Delany’s early fiction to Benh Zeitlin’s acclaimed film Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012), and audiovisual traces of ’70s gay hustler Jason Holliday to the putatively expressive robot BINA48, to name just a few. For Nyong’o, afro-fabulation describes how black artists and subjects mobilize strategies of disappearance, concealment, and indiscernibility to work with and against what he terms “apparatuses of capture”: settings (e.g., a stage), media (e.g., a film), or technologies (e.g., a recording device) that leave black subjects vulnerable to the threat of objectifying scrutiny with little wiggle room to enact resistant agency.
As such, Nyong’o contends, this “absent presence” or “withholding” opens space for an “angular sociality” — the intermingling of bodies that keep their own time, convening through “black polytemporality” rather than perfect synchronization. This form of black social life comes and goes as quickly as the phenomenon that produced it, becoming noteworthy only as it dissipates. Angular sociality, Nyong’o implies, can only be gleaned in retrospect, signifying a kind of rearview mirror model of black social living. By foregrounding the explicitly temporal contours of black art and performance, Afro-Fabulations further demonstrates how afro-fabulative experience unfolds in and across time. The book thereby works to “unburden blackness and queerness of their identitarian and representational logics.” Much like the late José Esteban Muñoz’s concept of disidentification, “angular sociality” in this sense names a kind of coming-together that might not promise utopian transcendence but could instead suffice for the time-being — breaking bread with an unlikely comrade, doing a group project with someone who isn’t really in your clique.
Nyong’o’s analysis of Kara Walker’s “Marvelous Sugar Baby” is a case in point. Rather than return to more familiar aspects of the installation — namely, non-black and white spectators’ rather vulgar responses to the sexualized, Sphinx-like pose of the gigantic figure — Nyong’o centers the reaction to and reception of A Subtlety among black feminist activists, audiences, and commentators. In this sense, Walker’s “enigmatic” installation cannot be fully grasped without accounting for the black counterpublics that appeared in its wake. “Refusing the double bind of either protesting the exhibit or passively accepting the terms of individualized participation,” Nyong’o writes, “black feminist activists and some of their allies instead organized equally ephemeral counterpublics constituted around the radical concept of valuing black lives.” Not content simply to extract a “meaning” or “context” for the work under examination, Nyong’o instead aims to provide witness for what the work makes possible — in this case, the “conviviality that momentarily flashed up and around the installation, a quasi-anonymous convergence of the murmuring multitude that faded away as quickly as it appeared.” These largely internet-driven “counterpublics” cannot be reduced to A Subtlety, nor can the latter be reduced to the former. Both occupy the negative space of the other.
The chapter on Samuel Delany’s early fiction reveals an altogether different sense of afro-fabulation. Here, Nyong’o seeks to relocate the putative origins of queer studies from the theory craze of the 1990s to Delany’s work spanning several decades. Tracing a “queer genealogy” of queer theory itself, Nyong’o considers how oft-assumed correctives to mainstream queer theory ex post facto — considerations not just of race but also of disability, coloniality, and myriad other axes of difference — were undertaken by Delany well before the consolidation and institutionalization of queer studies as such. By unsettling the standard, developmental account of queer theory’s origins — first came queer theory, then came queer of color critique — Nyong’o frames Delany’s fictional/theoretical work as hovering above and beyond scholarly debates in a sort of “virtual” time.
If these examples seem only loosely linked, it is due to the slipperiness of the book’s central concept. In the first instance, we observe a form of afro-fabulative reception conditioned by, but not reducible to, a site-specific installation. In the second, we glimpse a kind of historiographical afro-fabulation whereby successive theoretical developments are shadowed by the contributions of an author who had been asking those same questions from the get-go. Rather than flashing into view and quickly withering away, Delany’s theoretical interventions remain present but unacknowledged over an extended period of time. The author’s work as a queer theorist, that is, was “simply hiding in plain sight all along.” These two cases thus represent quite distinct phenomena. They share certain attributes, but I’m not convinced they sustain a unified theory.
Nyong’o acknowledges as much. “It will not have escaped the close reader that the word ‘fabulation’ in this text has almost as many senses as it has appearances and that such a promiscuity of meaning will probably deny it the status of a concept,” Nyong’o remarks. If afro-fabulation “serve[s] in this text less as a concept than as a placeholder for a concept,” this is the book’s strength and its limit. Afro-fabulation’s manifestations are so many and various that it remains somewhat elusive; as soon as you pin it down, it slips away. In this way, we could say that afro-fabulation is itself an afro-fabulation. But the expansive scope of the book also renders it somewhat unwieldy, each chapter seemingly keeping its own time.
Stephen Best’s None Like Us: Blackness, Belonging, Aesthetic Life (Duke University Press, 2018) advances related claims by other means. Less interested in offering a positive method or concept (or placeholder for a concept), Best instead presents a tautly argued critique of what he calls “melancholy historicism” in black studies writ large. For Best, melancholy historicism signifies a kind of “crime scene investigation […] directed toward the recovery of a ‘we’ at the point of ‘our’ violent origin.” He thus aims to unsettle several oft-unspoken presuppositions: first, that blackness should be understood as collective belonging to a shared history and common origin — namely, slavery and the slave trade; second, that the political present should be glimpsed through the prism of the slave past; and third, that the study of black history and culture should proceed according to the methodological and ethical protocols grouped broadly under the rubric of “recovery.”
In their place, Best proposes: first, that blackness should be understood as a “collective undoing” rather than as grounds for group solidarity; second, that the study of black history and culture should emphasize rupture over continuity, thereby “refusing to make the slave past the progenitor of the existential condition of black people”; and third, that the proper methods for attending to these modes of disaffiliation, severance, and impossible sociality can be derived from works of art and literature and historical archives that foreground their own obliteration or obfuscation. In the paintings and installations of Mark Bradford and El Anatsui, the novels of Toni Morrison, historical accounts of slave suicide, and rumors in the archives of slavery, Best centers objects that elicit yet flout efforts to interpret them. In their withdrawal, opacity, self-eclipse, and even failure, these objects force us as readers and viewers to confront our own alienation from histories we might otherwise seek to recover — and, in so doing, to recover from. “The point is to see in our severance from figures in the past, to see in their opacity,” Best writes, “the idea that they are present to us in the only way they can be, and thus to be acknowledged, but not to be known.”
The generative resonances with Nyong’o’s book abound. Just as Afro-Fabulations seeks to “unburden” black and queer aesthetics from representational or identitarian readings, None Like Us looks to “queer objects” whose “appearance-in-disappearance” renders them “inadequate to sustain the representational claims made on their behalf.” This is black aesthetics as Irish goodbye; you can’t corner someone who’s already left the party. As the former examines fleeting forms of “angular sociality,” the latter theorizes “impossible” black sociality — a kind of kinship haunted by the specter of its obliteration, extinction, or severance. And where Nyong’o aims to provide witness to varieties of afro-fabulative experience without excavating a meaning or context behind them, Best likewise professes an “indifference to the question of the ‘meaning’” of an artwork. He rather seeks a method responsive to recalcitrant archives and objects: “[N]ot an interpretation or contextualization of it, but a description that allows one to inhabit it.”
Despite these clear overlaps, Afro-Fabulations and None Like Us feel altogether different — the one an expansive if at times diffuse examination of a concept and its manifold iterations, the other a concise critique of operative presuppositions in black studies. If Best clears space for a new set of reading practices and methodological protocols, Nyong’o might fill the gap. Each work occupies the negative space of the other. In this way, we might describe their relation, simply, as afro-fabulative.
Best and Nyong’o take up a set of questions that have occupied black literary and performance studies for some time. In his Poetics of Relation (1990; trans. 1997), Martinican writer and theorist Édouard Glissant argued for the “right to opacity,” signifying a kind of openness to irreducible difference that would constitute the grounds for an ethical relation between self and other. “For the time being, perhaps, give up this old obsession with discovering what lies at the bottom of natures,” Glissant writes. “There would be something great and noble about initiating such a movement, referring not to Humanity but to the exultant divergence of humanities.” For Glissant, embracing opacity and mutual illegibility would require relinquishing our desire to “grasp” the other, which would imply a kind of violent “transmutation.”
I thus am able to conceive of the opacity of the other for me, without reproach for my opacity for him. To feel in solidarity with him or to build with him or to like what he does, it is not necessary for me to grasp him. It is not necessary to try to become the other (to become other) nor to “make” him in my image.
This rumination on the ethical, political, and poetic stakes of opacity has likewise been taken up in Saidiya Hartman’s early work — emphasizing how the “subterranean and veiled character” of slave culture resisted the “dominative imposition of transparency and the degrading hypervisibility of the enslaved” — and Daphne Brooks’s more recent examination of “spectacular opacity” in black transatlantic performance of the 19th century. Afro-Fabulations and None Like Us go a step further, noting the significance of opacity and concealment in black culture and developing novel interpretive (or descriptive) practices attuned to such phenomena. In so doing, the two books together index the convergence of — and go some way toward reconciling — related but isolated debates in literary studies, queer theory, and black social thought.
Over the last decade, literary studies has been animated by the so-called “method wars,” pitting interpretive practices variously grouped as paranoid reading, critique, or the hermeneutics of suspicion against proposed alternatives: reparative reading; postcritique; literal, denotative, or descriptive reading; and more. Those in the latter group have sought to foreground critical modes that, rather than demystify or decrypt works of art and literature by uncovering what they do not or cannot reveal about themselves, re-describe or attend to what literary texts disclose on their own terms. This shift is often metaphorized as the heroic interpreter demonstrating mastery over the text being supplanted by the humble student showing appreciation for the text.
As indicated above, Nyong’o and Best stray toward the latter. In his examination of Ghanaian artist El Anatsui’s golden tapestry installations, which at first glance appear to made of opulent materials but on closer inspection are composed of discarded bottle caps, Best remarks that the experience of standing before an Anatsui tapestry “feels like a call to acknowledge what is simply there in front of me rather than what ought to, wants to, or used to be there — a call to acknowledge the force of the literal that issues from the bottle caps themselves.” This descriptive or literalist practice, Best shows, is adequate both to contemporary art and the archives of colonial slavery, further resonating with what Denise da Ferreira Silva terms black feminist poethics: an attempt to see artworks as grounds for reflective imagination rather than that which “needs to be conquered (occupied, dominated, seized)” through formalist analysis. Nyong’o’s exploration of the “perils and possibilities of exposure,” moreover, could be said to concern both aesthetic objects and critical postures. If Afro-Fabulations centers artists, writers, and performers that work with and against the camera to solicit and evade capture, it also joins None Like Us in forgoing what would be considered suspicious interpretive strategies: possessing, mastering, or — in Glissant’s term — grasping.
One thing this parallelism suggests is that black objects and archives are particularly fruitful resources in these times of intellectual uncertainty, namely because forms of occlusion, illegibility, and secrecy have been so central to their formation. This very emphasis on the veiled, hidden, or opaque in the tradition of black studies might yet prompt — but does not require nor reward — a depth hermeneutics. Black expressive practice becomes an elaborate game of catch-me-if-you-can. But more crucially, it also suggests another genealogy of this polemical turn away from suspicion. If this split is frequently linked to figures like Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, whose essay on “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading” (1997; 2003) precipitated many of the debates that would unfold over the next decade and a half in literary studies, one wonders how the “method wars” might look if we located its origins elsewhere — say, in the writings of Glissant. The point here is not simply to replace Sedgwick (not to mention Bruno Latour or Rita Felski) with Glissant, nor to imply that any intellectual development has a singular origin, but rather to attempt the kind of recovery that Nyong’o pursues in his chapter on Delany. For it is not just in his later Poetics of Relation but even earlier in Caribbean Discourse (1981; trans. 1989) that Glissant posits that “perpetual concealment […] is our form of resistance.” In this way, Best and Nyong’o together point us toward another genealogy of method that might alleviate what could be considered the unbearable whiteness of postcritique.
In so doing, Afro-Fabulations and None Like Us also collapse the false binarisms of analogous debates in queer theory and black studies. Queer theory has witnessed a clash between what has been termed the “antisocial thesis” and more utopian considerations of queer survival. In one camp, theorists like Leo Bersani and Lee Edelman have posited that modern social life structured by heteronormativity necessarily excludes queer subjects. Edelman, in particular, has argued polemically that all politics is organized by, and remains invested in, “reproductive futurism.” On a small scale, this phrase describes a certain heteronormative progression from childhood to adulthood: first comes love, then comes marriage, then comes the baby in the baby carriage. More broadly, it directs political activity toward the welfare of future generations. For queer subjects excluded from this paradigm, Edelman argues, the only viable option is a total refusal of futurity. In the other camp, theorists like Muñoz, the most prominent critic of the antisocial thesis, have rejoined that some people simply cannot afford to give up hope for the future — namely, queers of color. On the contrary, Muñoz argues, queerness itself is a mode of desiring and enacting a better world.
Nyong’o seeks explicitly to reconcile these two positions by drawing on the work of Muñoz. Afro-Fabulations models a reparative method that “acknowledges antagonism and negativity rather than denying it.” Future-oriented reparative reading need not be synonymous with historical recovery and may in fact produce the opposite result, “proceed[ing] from an attention to, even and [sic] immersion in the negative.” Best’s considerations of the archives of colonial slavery makes a similar intervention. In the first instance, he suggests that the future of black politics should center “forms of unbelonging, negative sociability, abandonment, and other disruptions that thwart historical recovery.” Regarding the history of slavery, he further attends to what he calls “impossible speech” in the archives, supplanting both lamentations of pure absence and celebrations of overflowing eloquence. The words left behind by Caribbean slaves are “neither evidence irredeemably corrupted by the sovereign power that extracted them nor as verbatim speech through which we can recover subjects lost to history,” Best writes. “These words are, rather, exactly what they appear to be: ‘impossible speech’ that oscillates between loyalty and insurgency, speech and paraphrase, fact and prophesy, confession and coercion. In that sense, it reflects back to us the deeply felt uncertainty of the enslaved.” By rethinking the terms of black sociality and historical archives, that is, Best points productively toward a “future of non-belonging.” He and Nyong’o thereby seem to split the difference between abjection and aspiration — indeed, premising the latter on the former.
It is in this sense, finally, that Afro-Fabulations and None Like Us renegotiate the terms of another crucial, if still unresolved, quarrel in black social thought — that between Afro-pessimism and black optimism. Afro-pessimism frames blackness as altogether outside of normative conceptions of the Human, extending sociologist Orlando Patterson’s theory of slavery as social death — “the permanent, violent domination of natally alienated and generally dishonored persons” — to black social life writ large. Black optimism, while less a coherent position than a broad descriptor of various positions at odds with the other, instead conceptualizes blackness as the source of new forms of humanity. As Nyong’o aptly summarizes, if for Afro-pessimism “the negation of blackness is the basis out of which civil society […] is animated,” then for black optimism “blackness is the negation of civil society, on the basis of which social life can flourish.”
As we have seen, Nyong’o seeks a reparative position that doesn’t shy away from negativity, arriving at a conception of ethnicity that is necessarily ambivalent. Like Best’s emphasis on “uncertainty,” here Nyong’o argues that “[b]oth positive and negative, ethnicity cannot be recuperated for an affirmative politics of recognition.” Best’s reading of the black radical tradition via Cedric Robinson’s Black Marxism (1983) further evaporates the deadlock between social death and social life. “Victory and freedom make their appearance in disappearance, the tradition sustaining a kind of negative capability,” he remarks. “There is an essential opacity to the black radical tradition, an ‘imagination’ amenable to neither the utopianism of a revolutionary consciousness nor the pure negativity of a black nihilism.”
Best and Nyong’o, then, do not simply rework — and work their (and our) way out of — several conceptual, theoretical, and indeed political quagmires. They also helpfully index the surprising simultaneity of those very disputes, where thinkers in literary studies, queer theory, and black thought continue to take stock of eerily similar conflicts: between repair and paranoia, abjection and hope, utopianism and nihilism, abundance and lack. And they show, undeniably, that some of the best answers are to be found in the promises and perils of black life and art.
Nicholas T Rinehart is a postdoctoral fellow in the Society of Fellows and Lecturer in the Department of English and Creative Writing at Dartmouth College. Along with Wai Chee Dimock et al., he co-edited American Literature in the World: An Anthology from Anne Bradstreet to Octavia Butler (Columbia University Press, 2017).