Jarod Sexton: People-of-Color-Blindness

From Affirmation and Negation in the Political Imagination

In this 2011 talk at University of California, Berkeley, noted critical race scholar Jared Sexton draws on his recent articles to develop some of the most trenchant implications of the Afro-Pessimist position as a historical reading, a performative analysis and a political ontology. He is concerned to emphasize both the foundational character of racial slavery to modernity – including modernity’s salient categories of freedom, rights and personhood – and its specificity as a total social institution in Orlando Patterson’s emblematic term, ‘social death’. There is an urgency to reconstruct the categories of political philosophy around the figure of the slave (departing from Agamben’s injunction that the paradigmatic political figure of our time is the refugee). This should be the first step of a response to the question ‘what is the world that slavery made possible?’ Sexton goes on to critique the universalization of slavery to diverse historical situations of racialized subjugation and exploitation, such as Achille Mbembe’s term ‘necropolitics’ to describe the condition of the ‘post-colony’. Gender and class are both re-positioned as not ‘intersecting’ with but directly produced through the social formation of racial slavery as the matrix for the sorting of humans from ‘anti-humans’ and property from persons.

Sexton’s lecture is productively engaged with the tensions between affirmation and negation in radical thought, referring to the ‘need to affirm affirmation through negation – not as a moral imperative, but as a psycho-political necessity’. Radicalism means both a critique of the norm and the proposition of new norms. In this light, he delivers a rich and incisive exploration of the critical standpoints of Afro-pessimism and ‘black optimism’ whose signatures are, respectively, Frank Wilderson III and Fred Moten. Sexton argues for the imbrication of social life and social death as the experience of blackness in a world normatively constituted as antiblack. There is also a distinction made between Wilderson’s focus on ontology, and Moten’s attention to the performativity in and of the black radical tradition. The conclusion is that the two are more variations of emphasis rather than principally or politically opposed. The lecture works as an introduction to the some of the most powerful terms of contemporary black radical social critique, as well as a lucid exposition of its most striking dilemmas. It is an extraordinary contribution to understanding capitalist modernity as a world-making project constituted by the brutal excision of what made it materially and socially possible. Sexton’s approach is defined by its scope, conceptual rigor and interpretive generosity, and joins the exciting corpus of Afro-pessimism. A tendency influenced by radical feminism and Marxism no less than classical critical theory in the ambition of its negative dialectic – social death, after all, cannot help but recall Adorno’s famous apothegm: ‘Life does not live.’

Jared Sexton is the Director of African American Studies at the University of California, Irvine, where he also teaches film and media studies.

September 3, 2014

University of California, Berkeley

Curated by

Marina Vishmidt

About the curator

Marina Vishmidt is a London-based writer, editor, and lecturer on art, political economy, and the moving image.