The World Must End: Affect Theory and Diaspora
by MERCY FERRARS
Existence implies affection. To live means to be affected by the world around us, which hence affirms parts of ourselves and negates others. Forces impact the body from all sides, and through this impact they shape its potential or bury it. These forces are social forces, surrounding us as a social, cultural and political anthropogenic enclosure. Our same body experiences different judgements and new axial placements as the world around us changes. The external ascription of our truth arises from this life-world. It quickly seeps inside and becomes its own affirmation, which must first be redefined as such in order to be made external again, to be rejected. But that same external world is in turn affected by our own existence, our defiance, our severing from its gaze.
In philosophy, affect theory does not simply address sentient states, although they formulate our complex and beautiful responses to being. Rather, in this discourse, philosophical affect theory assists critical theory as a helpful tool in understanding how the relationality of the world gets structures moving. Simplified, then, one can think of human beings, their world, and the relational energy that vibrates between them as a living dynamic system in mutual affection. In Spinoza’s Ethics, where bodies interact with other bodies, they affect and are affected and “the body’s power of acting is increased or diminished, aided or restrained.” The ways in which bodies are affected are not always perceptible or obvious. Affect theory hence solidifies what was dissolved into vapour. Power structures, hidden cross-discipline genealogies and larger-picture interests are being made tangible.
My articles on the ideological exclusion of African-American influence on the emergence of rock music and the evolution of racial stereotypes and identity clusters rest in this interest in affect theory. After years of feminist theory in which I reappraised the ways in which femininity and women’s bodies were made and broken by external forces, scattered into a thousand-piece puzzle and inadequately glued back together, I found interest in a similar issue with regard to the African-American diaspora. In this context, I still use affect primarily as the way in which bodies and identities are affected by the world they exist in, but the concept also, at times, includes the emotional responses by which they express their affectedness.
Affect and Race
Black diasporan affect is caught between many forces that tug at it, shape and bend it; that render it into what is beneficial to others. It is systematically placed in relation to whiteness and pathologized as either too much or too little. Dehumanised and instrumentalised by and for who perceives it, it is violently excluded from the spectrum within which white affect expresses itself. This spectrum is gated by a brutal annihilating prevalence of the latter, which represents the scale on which ontologies and worlds are measured and which rests on the negation of all which is other. The affective crisis is intimately tethered to colonialism and its aftermath, which imposed whiteness and its properties at the epicentre of worldly structure. Black affect and identity are cut and sanded by colonialist and racialized thinking. As Blackness internalises this subliminal scaffolding, underpinned by historical, sociocultural, and political realities, it simultaneously moulds itself in ways that allow it to exist in that world; but it also rebels against its falsity. Since Foucault, it has been clear that the double subjectivation of the individual, namely through an external source that is simultaneously internalised, is the most effective—‘productive’— form of subjectivation. It is eternally in flux, it knows no fixed beginning or end point, it can only be vaguely identified in the external.
In order to compare the affective capacity of different social groups, they must first move in the world in an equated relation. The directed gaze would have to be mutual. But nothing else lives in the white male world which dominates the West. Annihilating and negated worlds gather around this world like planets around a sun, at its borders, full of their own richness. But for the white male world they exist only as a rejection from which it draws its dominance. Black affect is thus always seen from the outside, as detached from white affect, either over-pathologized or never sufficient. Thus, although affectivity and affective expression is an overarching human capacity, Black diasporic affect is readily portrayed as either too much or too little: peaceful street demonstrations are suddenly “violent,” mourning for victims of police violence is suddenly seen as pathetically exaggerated. The stranglehold of the white-male world structure becomes all the more apparent when race and gender—racism and misogyny—couple. Black women are affected by a double aggression that enforces not only racial but also gendered stereotypes. Images such as “carefree Black girl” or “strong Black woman” emerge as a countermovement to racial-misogynistic stereotyping. Against a backdrop of best intentions, these images also put pressure on Black femininity and once more ask it to fit an expectation. No matter how one looks at it, Black affect cannot simply exist, but is always categorised and evaluated from the outside.
An Ontology of Commutability
Commutability: existing as a group, not as an individual. A tool in the play of another. The white gaze’s intent is to dictate and reify Black identity and Black affect, formulating blanket statements and drawing cultural myths. Such “[…] ‘fungibility,’ as an ontological fact of blackness, positions the Black body as an abstraction upon and through which the desires, feelings, and ideas of others are projected,” writes critical theorist Tyrone S. Palmer, lecturer in the Department of African-American and African Diaspora Studies at Columbia University, 2017 in “What Feels More Than Feeling?”: Theorizing the Unthinkability of Black Affect1. This violently facilitated interchangeability or commodification of Black bodies merely changed its form, from physical factuality to a conceptual, cultural form of present-day objectification. In other words, while the transatlantic slave trade could be accessed as a visible, tangible form of violence, the ensuing relationality of former coloniser and formerly colonised—in the context of this article series of white American society and its Black citizens—eventually diffused and became lost in opacity. The invisibility of this psychological violence, the bending and shaping of Black identity to whiteness’ own liking, is also evident in the perception of Black affect (as emotional expression): “As a result of the varying modalities of violence— epistemic, material, metaphysical, ontological—which produce blackness as a locus of incapacities, Black affective responses are only legible as signs of pathology, further reifying blackness-as-subhumanity; as a sign of both excess and lack.”2 Tyrone S. Palmer defines affect as “the connective thread between bodies and worlds, the immanent potential of matter that confirms one’s Being-in-the-World. The affective encounter is defined by the grammars of relation and becoming;”3 and hence affirms a potential which is dispositioned in the subject-to-be. Between two poles—world and subject—the law of reciprocity constitutes both. The subject holds the capacity to be affected by the world in which it exists, in such that this openness to its world originates its very existence, its affective rendering.4 However, the concept-world itself is being affirmed by its subjects, which are the very atoms of its anatomy.
The Concept-World and the “Human-as-Man”
At the heart of Palmer’s concept of affect is the world. The world to him is nothing other than “a metonym for colonial modernity,”5 which “can be thought of as a concept said to encapsulate the totality of things.”6 At the epicentre of this concept-world, which “reigns over and inflects all of the categories with which one apprehends existence, meaning, and social standing,”7 is the concept-man. The terminology for “man” as gender and as human being, which is arbitrarily interchangeable in English, already carries a colonialist credo—it defines both inclusion to and exclusion from the concept of humanity and consequently the concept of world. The concept of man as the ontological truth of Western philosophy’s epistemology naturally excludes who is not man and who is not of the coloniser’s colour. Those other worlds can only be imagined but not actualised. Hence, both Woman (and non-male identifying genders) as well as Blackness try to find a way to exist within man’s world. That this world is not made for them becomes evident in different ways, but the white man’s culture dominates this concept-world and allows for little to no other insertion.
And what does it mean to be? It is “seeing, knowing and experiencing the world,”8 which includes the world’s constituent structures of knowledge, science and (emotional) affect. The constitutive man regulates all reality categories of those who exist within his world: consciousness, law, language, body, structure, commodification. Beating as the heart of his world, to uphold it all else must be negated, destroyed and nullified. From this he draws his strength. From this negation, his conceptual world sustains itself. Its roots, proliferating in destruction, give it a certain basic tension that spans all the subjects, territories, and time affected by it. “The very meaning of what it is to be—and the value ascribed to being as such—necessitates the violent disavowal of blackness and Black people,” writes Palmer.9 But how can an identity persist in a world that rises from its erasure in the first place?
Blackness as the Concept-World’s Negation
If affect is a relationality between man and his world, Black affect in that same world is a relationality to man. Understanding man as white and of European origins, the commodification of Black bodies not just during the transatlantic slave trade but also in its passing onto culture denies those same bodies the same ontological properties as constituents of the world-as-is. Instead, they are invited to linger in a world that negates their humanity; not out of good will, but out of functionality, of accessibility, of utility. What else is possible for the negated identity, other than stay and survive?
This sublimating idea with its conciliatory undertone hides the violent rejection of Blackness from the concept-world, but fragments of its isolation and brutality shine through the thick grey sky which keeps one from seeing. Palmers describes Black identity and affect as an “impossibility” within man’s world, “as that unbearable negativity which drives us toward its necessary destruction.”10 Blackness, so he concludes, is “rendered ontologically captive.”8 Palmer positions Blackness as an antagonist to the world given that the world endures within its colonialist roots. He strongly criticises the previously mentioned invitation to stay in that world, conceiving of it less as an antagonist but rather a “a horizon of possibility”, which aids and abets in hiding the brutal truth, blurring and diffusing it until it becomes less and less tangible. Moving in this world can only be possible if an awareness of the metaphysics of this world is cultivated—namely that it is rooted in one’s own destruction.
Misogynoir: The Collapse of Two Worlds
No struggle is ever singular: Black women are affected not just by racial negation but also female negation. They carry the double burden of two such onto-epistemological worlds whose emergence was stifled before they could even develop. The weight of these two non-worlds lays on them with double force. Their voice is suppressed in the canon of struggles of both worlds, and their adumbration in the first feminist and civil rights waves is unforgivable. If the oppressions and affective formations of these two worlds melt into one force, it is inherently contradictory. Two stereotypes overlap in the dehumanisation of women “as objects” and of Blackness “as animalistic.” They are summarized under the term “misogynoir,”—anti-Black misogyny—which was coined by the Black feminist Moya Bailey. In Misogynoir Transformed: Black Women’s Digital Resistance, she defines misogynoir as “the uniquely co-constitutive racialized and sexist violence that befalls Black women as a result of their simultaneous and interlocking oppression at the intersection of racial and gender marginalization.”11 Creator @alina_gene explains how these two forces contradict each other:
“The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. […] Women get objectified, literally seen like an inanimate object. Black people get animalised, it comes from a tradition of chattel slavery, where we were viewed as animals. When you put those two things together, you can’t really fully objectify me, because the bigotry also relies on viewing me as an animal, which is a living creature. And the whole thing turns into this weird type of fetishization.” @alina_gene on TikTok
The Black woman’s story often perishes in recounting history. Even in the 21st century, culture fosters her colonial myths and produces a very specific set of premade identities for her to fit into, becoming exponentially infuriated at her refusal to give up her truth for white supremacy’s thirst for power. Bailey traces the early overlap of a simultaneous animalisation and objectification to the slave trade, which is little surprising, and finds that the perception of Black women’s bodies was always proportionate to what the ideology needed them to be. Either the hypersexual Jezebel—born from the rape these women had to endure during forced childbirth—; the mammy, as submissive domestic “less threatening, asexual servants to the existing power structure”11; or the sapphire, painted as a figure of emasculation and opinionatedness. Bailey subsequently embarks on a journey to rebuild Black female identities in a transformation project. Black affect, Palmer concludes, is “the name we give to those fleshly intensities that register the catastrophic violence that produces and subsumes Black existence.”12 He argues that Black affect cannot exist in a world which is preoccupied with sustaining its own existence, one which rests on the violent rejection and destruction of Blackness from that world. What is needed is the end of the world-as-is.
The End of the World
“What has the power to upend the dominant terms of reality itself?” asks Palmer in Otherwise than Blackness (2020)13 in reference to the governing system of worldbuilding. The end of the concept-world is the very supposition for an alternate world to arise. What must commence is the end, where beginning and end flesh out “collapsed signs of a paradigmatic break”13—which, however, does not imply that a new world will emerge. It merely signifies the substruction upon which a new world can pullulate. The end of the world will require metaphysics itself to end, however it is within metaphysical responsibility to design a new structure—a paradox. To solve the paradox, Palmer takes an even deeper look at the concept-world. He first exemplifies that the world is an extension of Europe’s global dominance. The world to Palmer and to the Martinican poet Aimé Césaire, by whose poem (Cahier d’un retour au pays natal) Palmer visualises his concept of world, depends on Blackness and the exploitation of Black labour, while it presents as an “uninhabitable, deathly space.”13 To decolonise the world (here understood as the globe) signals an incision in the concept-world, “a state of tabula rasa—a wiping out of everything, a complete resetting of the terms of the social”14; placing what comes after as a “radical uncertainty” for which “we have no language to articulate.”15 The calling for the end remains however, as it has become obvious that affect theory’s claim to universality does not hold in the moment of raciality, that it aligns itself with a world which only has finite space for affective expression. Eventually, in alleviating clarity, there is a desire for the world to end, to fashion it anew—and irrespective of how it will be composed, the beauty of annihilated worlds will burn in it brightly and confidently.
1Palmer 2017: 37 22017: 32 3 3Palmer 2020: 247 42020: 248 52020: 253 62020: 256 72020: 256 82017: 32–33 92017:32 102020: 251 11“Introduction: What Is Misogynoir?” 122020: 271 132020: 252–253 142020: 255 152020: 261
Bailey, Moya. Misogynoir Transformed: Black Women’s Digital Resistance, New York University Press, New York, 2021.
Palmer, Tyrone S. “Otherwise than Blackness: Feeling, World, Sublimation.” Qui Parle: Critical Humanities and Social Sciences, vol. 29, no. 2, Dec. 2020, pp. 247–283.
Palmer, Tyrone S. ““What Feels More Than Feeling?”: Theorizing the Unthinkability of Black Affect”, Critical Ethnic Studies, vol. 3, no. 2, 2017, pp. 31–56.