The political/literary theory reading group to which I belong (and which meets once a year) read Fred Moten and Stefano Harney’s The Undercommons this year and we were privileged to have Fred Moten join us for our discussion.
When I read the book in early June, my reaction was that it was anarchist gobblygook. I was somewhat mollified by the interview with M&H that comprises the last 1/3 of the book and which presented a much more palatable (at least to me) vision of what they were up to. The conversation with Moten himself was even more to my taste; the style of the book is deliberately associative, more a riff, or an improvisation, than a formal argument—in large part because M&H hate “formality” as tyrannical and are very much against any notion of the avant-garde or critique or any other pretension to having a truth or a knowledge to deliver. They want to inspire, to provoke, to set things in motion, to put things into flight (shades of Deleuze), and to celebrate (create? perform?) incompleteness.
M&H have any number of things they want to reject/refuse. But the two big ones are politics and individuation. Politics is pernicious precisely because it insists on the formation of subjects, of individuals, who then step forward to ask for recognition, to make claims on the basis of rights, to articulate interests that must be taken into account, and to grab/claim a share of goods. The very act of subject formation, of individuation, sets in motion a credit/debt accounting, a parceling out of responsibility, and of owing that M&H want to get out from under. So they are with the various leftists I have been discussing these past few months in seeing the making of political demands only as a trap that legitimizes the powers and institutions to which the demands are addressed. Moten told us that he rejected everything that Arendt designated as politics.
Yet . . . M&H also accept that the current order of things is rotten to the core. Modernity is constituted by anti-blackness, by the exclusion of the black subject even as that black body’s labor is extracted from it. Blacks are “conscripts of modernity”—and it would be a terrible mistake for them to see their goal (political or otherwise) as admission to the condition of the rights-bearing modern subject. “You have denied us a place in modernity even as we are the condition of its emergence and persistence. Don’t delude yourselves that what we want is what you have. We want something utterly different.”
What is that utterly different thing? Here is where is gets both inspiring and weird. Moten fully admitted to a romanticism of “black sociality.” There is nothing wrong with us (blacks). We are already doing what we want to do, being who we want to be, in the fullness of black sociality (which also goes by the name of the “undercommons.”) M&H aspire to a fundamental affirmation; black life is not about lack or deprivation; black life, instead, is a rich set of practices and entanglements that were created “in the hold” of modernity, out of a need to live otherwise. The basic message: “We are here. You can’t get rid of us (as much as you might want to). And we won’t be placated by the crumbs you think to push our way. But we have our own world, the one we have created in your despite, and we just want to live in that world, as untroubled by you as possible.”
An odd kind of quietism. Just leave us alone. We don’t want to partake of your madness. We ask nothing of you; just stop bothering us. Yet—Moten also said “anti-blackness” is what is going to kill me, just as it killed my father and my grandfather, and it will kill my children. Because whites can’t just leave blacks alone since modernity is dependent on the exploitation of blacks. Moten also said that anti-blackness will kill everyone—even (maybe especially Donald Trump) because modernity is poison. But that description of a murderous modernity makes the affirmation of a quietist sociality harder to stomach. Living in the interstices (Ellison’s invisible man) is a completely understandable strategy. But it is surely a second best. Is there no hope, no politics, that can address modernity’s crimes and mis-steps?
Of course, the whole thing is also premised on the notion that modernity is an unmitigated disaster. Moten, as Nick Bromell pointed out, is a radically undialectical thinker. There is no interplay between individuation (form) and the play of differences (the Deleuzian flux), just as there is no interplay between politics (public work toward justice) and sociality (informal, unstructured being together), or between modernity and its other(s). Just condemnation of politics, individuation and modernity—and an attempt to build a world elsewhere, apart. Modernity and individuation and politics are madness pure and simple; they thrust us into ways of living that are actually prolonged flirtations with death—ending in a full embrace of death.
That Moten is now reading the medieval mystics comes as no surprise. The longing for an elsewhere is deeply attractive when articulated so poetically by someone like Moten. Especially when the claim is that the elsewhere is always already here—hidden in plain sight, embodied in moments of being together, of conversation and collaboration that are taken as ends (joys) in themselves, not aimed to the production of anything (be it status or a commodity or knowledge). On some level, it just seems right to say that life is best lived in the company of others and unproductively. And it is great to have M&H break ties with “leftist anti-humanism” and straight-forwardly take “life” as their lodestar, that which they aim to serve and foster. But if the powers that thwart life, that worship and impose death, are so big, then to escape seems highly unlikely—and a privilege few will be able to access.
It increasingly comes to seem to me that the Nietzschean problematic of “affirmation” is everywhere. How can we affirm “life,” instead of constantly looking for ways to escape it, or transform it, or control it, or to put it into the service of something else. Why if life so hard to love?