Structures of Domination: Afro-Pessimist Ontology and Ecological Assemblages
Slavery and genocide underwrite American politics in the way that grammar is said to go unspoken in speech. Although unspoken, grammar has its effect on speech as a structure through which language is articulated and composed. The invisible agency of grammar is much like the agency that history exercises on the present. Agency is the capacity to affect or be affected. History effectuates itself in the present by its capacity to structure the social field like an invisible grammar.
The American writer Frank Wilderson III analyzes politics in terms of what he calls a “grammar of suffering.” To do this, Wilderson identifies three subject positions for American politics: the White (the “settler,” “master” and “human”), the Red (the “savage” and “half-human”), and the Black (the “slave” and “non-human”).
For Wilderson, blackness and redness are constituted by suffering within a structure of antagonisms. This way, it is different “to imagine social turmoil,” he writes,
“through the rubric of conflict (i.e., a rubric of problems that can be posed and conceptually solved) as opposed to the rubric of antagonism (an irreconcilable struggle between entities, or positions, the resolution of which is not dialectical but entails the obliteration of one of the positions).” (Wilderson, 5)
Wilderson makes explicit the reality of slavery for the Black, and genocide for the Red, as elements fundamental to their being. The social field is composed by the racial representation in political common sense which either conceals or makes explicit the degree to which blackness is produced as non-human, fungible flesh. On this position, slavery is ontological. That is, blackness is inextricably bound up with the historical conditions of slavery. Likewise, the Indian lives “in relation to a socius structured by genocide” (Wilderson, 10).
For Wilderson, the position of the Native is one that is marked as “half-human” or “savage” under white society. The indigenous writer Nick Estes attests to the ontology of indigeneity when he says, “I had to be a part of it […] As indigenous people we are political by default, just by the mere fact that we are always in the way of settlement and we are always in the way of capitalist development” (Estes, Serpe 2019). The ontological status of the “half-human” Native confers a political consciousness correlating to the dynamics of Indigenous oppression, namely, state sanctioned genocide.
“As Churchill points out, everyone from Armenians to Jews have been subjected to genocide, but the Indigenous position is one for which genocide is a constitutive element, not merely an historical event, without which Indians would not, paradoxically “exist.”” (Wilderson, 10; bold mine)
The Native is constituted as an assemblage enmeshed in material practices including but not limited to economic exploitation under relations of capitalism. The generic positions of political economy (bourgeois/proletarian) do apply, but do not exhaust the ontological status of the Native as “half-human.” Colonial practices in land dispossession and genocide exercise an agency that is contemporary with us today.
Excluding Blackness from Humanity
Early on in his book, Red, White & Black (2010), Wilderson establishes what he means by “the grammar of political ethics — the grammar of assumptions regarding the ontology of suffering” (5). Everyday common sense for ethical thinking includes assumptions about what counts as suffering. This includes questions like, who is human? And which is non-human? The answers to these questions, although unstated, structure our political common sense. Patterned assumptions form the foundation for Wilderson’s thinking when he draws a distinction between antagonism and conflict. On this view,
“structures of ontological suffering stand in antagonistic, rather than conflictual, relation to one another (despite the fact that antagonists themselves may not be aware of the ontological position from which they speak).” (Wilderson, 5; bold mine)
Wilderson’s analysis grasps the agency of humanity’s assumptions about itself. The same society that constructs the possibilities for identities also builds a system of norms which excludes some possible identities. It is the manner in which humanity represents itself (through culture, for instance) which sustains patterned exclusion, whether implicit or explicit, of some persons over others. The proletarian is excluded from ownership of the means of production according to the relations of an economic structure under capitalism. But, for Wilderson’s approach, there is a deeper, ontological status conferred to blackness which denies the most basic level of existence for black subjectivity. It is the institutions and practices of slavery, rather than economic relations, which over-determine the ontological status of the slave as non-human. Historical slavery exercises a contemporaneous agency to guarantee the coextensivity of blackness and slavery. The slave is excluded from what counts as human, installing an essential impossibility for black humanity.
The Ontology of Slavery for a Critique of Humanism
For Wilderson, “the Slave is not a laborer but an anti-Human” (Wilderson, 11). That is, ontologically, the Slave is “a position against which Humanity establishes, maintains, and renews its coherence” (Wilderson, 11). This ontological analysis of slavery echoes Jean-Paul Sartre’s critique of liberal humanism in his preface to Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth (trans. ed. 1968, pp.14,15). There, Sartre draws a direct link from European humanism to the state-sanctioned violence and dehumanization of colonized peoples.
Writing in anger, Sartre remarks how French and English upper classes look upon the unruly masses of European “workers” as “covetous creatures, made lawless by their greedy desires; but,” as Sartre emphasizes, “they [the upper classes] took care to include these great brutes in our own species, or at least they considered that they were free men — that is to say, free to sell their labor” (Preface to Wretched, 14). The capacity for selling one’s labor power evidences the status of the working class as human. Despite their subordinate position within an economic structure, the proletarian remains a status reserved for humans. However, the unequal relations that confer the subservient status for the proletariat are different from the relations of settler colonialism which produce the subject position of the slave as non-human. Sartre writes:
“In the case of forced labor, it is quite the contrary. There is no contract; moreover, there must be intimidation and thus oppression grows. Our soldiers overseas, rejecting the universalism of the mother country, apply the “numerus clausus” to the human race: since none may enslave, rob, or kill his fellow man without committing a crime, they lay down the principle that the native is not one of our fellow men. Our striking power has been given the mission of changing this abstract certainty into reality: the order is given to reduce the inhabitants of the annexed country to the level of superior monkeys in order to justify the settler’s treatment of them as beasts of burden. Violence in the colonies does not only have for its aim the keeping of these enslaved men at arm’s length; it seeks to dehumanize them.” (Sartre, Wretched, Preface, 15)
Sartre’s analysis uncovers a grammar of possible subject positions: human and non-human. From the explicit, bodies in conflict, we extract an implicit structure. The concrete struggle is informed by “the principle that the native is not one of our fellow men.” Distinct from proletarian wage laborer, the position of forced laborer is produced by the relations of gratuitous violence. The suffering of the slave is unbounded by the narrow base of economic relations. Black humanity is accorded an ontological impossibility.
Despite Sartre’s scathing critique of liberal humanism in his day, he does not go far enough imagining an alternative. When he calls for a new, more authentic humanism, Sartre retains a dichotomy of subject and object from Hegelian philosophy drawing a hard distinction between people and things. Conscious beings exist as Pour-soi, for-itself. Only consciousness is capable of self-directed action or agency. Objects, on the other hand, exist as En-soi, in-itself, because they are incapable of self-directed action. For Existentialist ethics, many problems can be traced back to the mis-identification of oneself with an object, En-soi, which cannot choose freely. We imagine ourselves to be objects who are unfree, or tragically determined by the circumstances of our situation. We deceive ourselves in order to find shelter from the responsibility contained in the fact that we are free. A universal response to turmoil confuses human consciousness from its true, free nature of existing for-itself to the unfree existence known to objects. Sartre’s ethics become an ardent re-assertion of human freedom and responsibility. And this ethical position correlates directly with his political program for decolonization.
In his book, The Marxism of Jean-Paul Sartre, Wilfrid Desan writes, “The very meaning of revolution implies a going beyond the present situation” (Desan, 12). Going beyond is precisely the kind of freedom Sartre revitalizes in his readers. For him, the relationship between subject and object positions outlines a radical means for revolutionary politics. The freedom to go beyond is the human’s ability to transcend what is given. The subject engages with the situation, acts upon it, to mold it into something new.
Occupying the subject position is the political imperative and ethical ideal for Sartre’s existentialism. For Sartre, Desan writes, “the revolutionary shows by his revolt that he is not a thing, but the master of things, not an object, but a subject” (Desan,14).
A binary attribution of agency is installed when the category of the practico-inert is counterposed with the conscious for-itself. The ontology inherited from existentialism guarantees a kind of mastery over objects not unlike the kind Freud assigns to the role of science for domination over nature in his book Civilization and Its Discontents (1930). Securing a dominant ontological position for humanity is impossible. In attempting to do so, we are precluded from understanding the ways a climatological system exercises agency over humans.
Dispersing Agency in Ecological Assemblages
An ecological understanding emphasizes how agency is not limited to minds or biotic organisms. An ecosystem is already a strange mixture of organic and non-organic elements. This anorganic consistency compels us to understand agency as being distributed in an asymmetrical network including animals, vegetables, and minerals in an ecological assemblage. On this view, we insist, as Gregory Bateson does, that “the basic unit of survival” is not the organism, but the organism and its environment. In Steps to an Ecology of Mind (1972), Bateson writes how any system “will usually not have the same limits as the ‘self’ — as this term is commonly (and variously) understood.” He elaborates:
“Consider a blind man with a stick […] where does the blind man’s self begin? At the tip of the stick? At the handle of the stick? Or at some point halfway up the stick? These questions are nonsense, because the stick is a difference along which differences are transmitted under transformation so that to draw a delimiting line across this pathway is to cut off a part of the systemic circuit which determines the blind man’s locomotion” (Bateson, Steps to an Ecology of Mind, 228–289).
How far down the stick do we trace the causal chain before finding the conscious for-itself, that singular agent capable of directed change? For Bateson’s ecological analysis, agency is distributed across a physical system. The blind man assemblage is populated by floating intensities, speeds, and affects circulating across non-organic components in a system that is coextensive with the entire assemblage.
In an ecosystem, capacities for affect are distributed across diverse elements. Biotic and non-organic elements enter into complex relations with only probabilistic outcomes. The organism has a more localizable agency compared to the overall ecosystem. Ecosystems exercise agency in a decentered manner with non-localized effects.
Mark Fisher attempts to overcome subject-object distinctions when he installs Spinozan metaphysics at the heart of his ecological approach.
“A paradox — familiar to readers of Spinoza — emerges. To increase agency — to become more active in Spinoza’s terms — is to become flatter with the system, not to “dominate” it (as if) from above. Bateson’s analysis of alcoholism as a paradigmatic positive feedback process argued that the very attempt to regain self-control, to be a “captain of one’s own soul”, contributed to the escalation of the alcoholic process, which precisely depends upon a crude opposition between subject and object, drinker and bottle. While the drinker thinks of the bottle as what Spinoza calls an “external cause”, and considers themselves — as subject — capable of beating it, they will have failed to apprehend the systemic complicity so fundamental to the alcoholic assemblage” (Fisher, Flatline Constructs, 67).
Adapting to a changing atmosphere means we modify our conventions for attributing agency in light of the new, dire situation. Global warming affects a tectonic shift on the ethical landscape. Ecological philosophy posits an ethical ideal for unfolding the human perspective to become flatter with the ecosystems sustaining our existence.
An ecological analysis has to contend with the geo-physical, but in a manner not excluding the colonial and sub-personal elements as constitutive. The fuller extent of involvement between heterogeneous parts is only obscured by notions of agency confined to consciousness, or organic beings. Reconciling with the fact of our ecological being becomes an ethical imperative. Becoming-imperceptible, losing all perspective after flattening out beyond recognition.
Ecological Leftism: Decarbonization = Decolonization
In the same manner Fanon identifies Indigenous struggle in global terms as central to the “cut-throat competition between capitalism and socialism,” we too must identify our ambitions for climate justice with struggles against capitalism because the generalized critique is fundamentally ecological. Fanon writes:
“the cut-throat competition between capitalism and socialism […] gives an almost universal dimension to even the most localized demands. Every meeting held, every act of repression committed, reverberates in the international arena” (Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, 75).
The international arena for Fanon’s decolonization is an ecological assemblage. Because colonization and global warming are involved with one another on an ontological basis. The ecological assemblage is the flatline continuum of intensities, Bateson’s walking stick for the blind man where agency is distributed across a physical system. Capacities for agency are distributed along an intensive curve of thresholds and becomings. Global warming is as much involved in the same processes of industrial fossil fuel extraction applying upward pressure on global temperatures.
Assemblage theory provides ways to analyze warming and exploitation as global tendencies. In an ecological assemblage, the white-settler is at once Oedipus and capital, an abstract expropriation machine made manifest. The appropriating image of Oedipus-capital is a galvanizing force. The gratuitous violence of settler-colonialism is a fundamental part of the same machine heating the planet’s atmosphere. This ontological fact has the potential to unite global resistance movements. “The environmental crisis — if conceived sufficiently broadly — neither trumps nor distracts from our most pressing political and economic causes: it supercharges each one of them with existential urgency” (Klein, 153). Lessons from the world’s Indigenous struggles are essential in building an alliance for ecological action. Because those of us academics or activists who live privileged lives are arriving very late to the same struggle that has been waging for hundreds of years.