PHILOSOPHY, BIPOC

The World Must End: Affect Theory and Diaspora

by MERCY FERRARS

22/05/2022

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.

Read: The Gen­e­sis of The Act­ing White Epithet

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. 

Read: Judith But­lers Appell an man­is­che Liebe in „The Force of Nonviolence”

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. 

Foot­notes

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

Sources 

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.

EDITED BY Lara Helena. PHOTOS BY Cottonbro.

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