Black “Matter” Lives

Armond R Towns. Women’s Studies in Communication. Volume 41, Issue 4, November 2018.

Not Flower Power, or Black Power, or Girl Power, but Thing-Power: The curious ability of inanimate things to animate, to act, to produce effects dramatic and subtle.
—Jane Bennett, p. 7; emphasis added

In Vibrant Matter, Bennett argues for the necessity of theorizing matter not as a “dead object” but as vibrant; she contends that we live in a context of “American materialism,” whereby people require “buying ever-increasing numbers of products purchased in ever-shorter cycles” (p. 5). This reflects a longer Western project of distinguishing between “organic life and inorganic matter,” which “affirms with confidence the existence of a nonmaterial life force that animates mere matter, and celebrates the uniqueness of the human version of that life force, the soul” (Bennett, p. 48). As one way to move away from such anthropocentricism, Bennett says “thing-power” is “a good starting point for thinking beyond the life-matter binary, the dominant organizational principle of adult experience” (p. 20) because thing-power attends “to the it as actant,” thus disarticulating “matter from its long history of attachment to automatism or mechanism” (p. 3; emphasis added). Thing-power is necessarily contrary to the anthropocentric read of the world promoted in much of the modern philosophical and scientific tradition, which historically posits that people are agential while matter is not. Alternatively, Bennett’s thing-power proposes that matter is just as vibrant as humans, of all races, and our inability to theorize things as dynamic further restricts our understandings of the transforming Anthropocene—or that time-space in which human engagement has caused the most dramatic environmental devastation.

Bennett is both right and wrong in her assessment of matter. On one hand, she rightly contends that thing-power must be constituted as an alternative agential politics that matter holds; this leads to a complication of the human, one that situates humans in assemblages with matter’s agency. On the other hand, she reinforces the anthropocentricism she seeks to undermine in the quote that opens this article: for if thing-power is not Black Power, then her assumption is that the call for Black Power is an essentially human call that is also to be read as consistent with Western historical distinctions between humans and matter. Indeed, to associate Black Power with Flower Power (largely White resistance to the Vietnam War) and Girl Power (largely White conceptions of “women’s empowerment” in the 1990s) is to flatten out the issue of each as human concerns. However, Black Power is a response to the historical construct of the Black body, that which has been treated in ways suggesting a consistency with dead objects: Both are things that lack self-determination. If we want to take seriously the modern discourses of matter that Bennett is critiquing, then we must ask a question that Bennett does not: How is thing-power not Black Power, if Black bodies are historically thought of as things?

In the assessment that Black Power is not thing-power, we continue to misread the political potentiality of a group like Black Lives Matter (BLM), the organization founded by three Black women, Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi, in 2013. According to the BLM Web site, the organization started as a “political will and movement” in which they sought to affirm “Black folks’ humanity, our contributions to this society, and our resilience in the face of deadly oppression” (para. 3). Since its inception, BLM has opened space for three interrelated discourses on the polysemic nature of matter, but so far two have dominated both Black and communication studies: First, the organization promotes the thought that Black lives, as human lives, should matter enough to convict White people of the murder of unarmed Black people (Johnson); second, some argue that while BLM is an important organization, historically, the lives of Black people in the West do not matter (Abu-Jamal), and such a non/relation is necessary for the West to maintain itself. This is an oversimplification of both discourses, but they both point to a quantitative concern: the historical capacity to measure Black life as less than White life. Under this framework, there are two humans who should be equal but are not, and therein lies the central problem of the West. If this is the case, indeed, Black lives hold no connection to Bennett’s thing-power.

The third discourse that BLM opens space for is more complicated as it inherently calls into question the human. If we combine BLM with Bennett—in ways that maybe neither intended—then we are pointed in a different direction, one which I argue is suggested in the growing work of what I call Black feminist new materialism: Why do Black lives equal matter? This is not an argument that Black people are matter, but that blackness, as a construct, shares a consistency with the Western construct of matter. The overlap between matter and blackness exists because, like Western conceptions of matter, Black bodies—as chattel, or the Negro (those ontological, epistemological, and biological constructs fabricated for us by the West)—have been situated as things, absent of self-determination. This would reframe Black bodies from relations of exploitation to nonrelations of obliteration, which would explain the disproportionate police killings faced by Black people to which BLM responds (Ferreira da Silva). Thus, BLM allows us to push Black studies forward not just to consider how much or how little Black lives matter (a quantitative concern for the recognition of one’s humanity) but to examine the centrality of (Black) matter itself to human/White life in the West.

What follows is a critique of matter. First, I examine Kant’s distinction between matter and form in Critique of Pure Reason and analyze how this is applicable to the discussion of race by pointing toward Black feminist new materialisms. Next, using the work of Fanon and McKittrick, I consider the relations between matter, blackness, and communication to point toward ways that communication studies scholars might apply Black feminist new materialisms to the field. In particular, I argue that Black female slave bodies, and Black bodies in general, function as “media” through which Western conceptions of race, gender, and sexuality are materialized. I conclude with a critique of “human communication” to show the similarities between the human of communication studies and of new materialism.

Black Feminist New Materialisms

In his Critique of Pure Reason, Kant argued there was a distinction between form and matter. Form was a priori, or the preexperiential thing, while matter was a posteriori, or the sensual, communicative articulation of said form:

That in the appearance which corresponds to sensation I term its matter; but that which so determines the manifold of appearance that it allows of being ordered in certain relations, I term the form of appearance. That in which alone the sensations can be posited and ordered in a certain form, cannot itself be sensation; and therefore, while the matter of all appearance is given to us a posteriori only, its form must lie ready for the sensations a priori in the mind, and so must allow of being considered apart from all sensation. (Kant, pp. 65-66)

For Kant, matter was that which came into existence through human empirical and experiential relationality. Kant privileged form over matter and sought to abstract the experiential to attain the “pure” by utilizing what he called the science of the “transcendental aesthetic” (Kant, p. 67). However, I do not seek to go down that road. Instead, I want to examine Kant’s assumptions about matter.

For Kant, matter was known via sensations or empirics. He argued that such objects “are given to us by means of sensibility, and it alone yields us intuitions” (Kant, 1965, p. 65; italics in the original), or that through which all thought as a “means” is directed. The raced, gendered, sexual, classed assumption of the human, historically called “man,” came to know matter; matter had no life (self-determination) outside of him, and it came into being through his sensorial and empirical use of it. Such thought continued even in radical work, such as the writings of Marx, who argued that the commodity had no capacity to resist man. Marx contended that instead of addressing commodities as equals we must “have recourse to their guardians, who are also their owners…. If [commodities] are wanting in docility he can use force; in other words, he can take possession of them” (Marx, p. 88). Like matter, the commodity speaks to Bennett’s American materialism, which is to say that both matter and commodities come into being through man’s self-determination, that which cannot be resisted. Indeed, we can see the problems with Bennett’s argument that Black Power is not thing-power here, as Marx’s commodity does not sound too different from the approach of White slave masters to their “property,” in other words, Black slaves. For example, Samuel Cartwright argued that slave resistance was a sickness referred to as “drapetomania”; such resistance did not make sense for White slave masters who imagined their enslavement of Black people to be a benevolent good for the slaves. Matter, like commodities and Black bodies, has been historically regarded as dead objects whose only potential life may be granted via (White) man’s agency.

What Kant and Marx have set up here is a division between self- and outer determination, by which matter has the latter and man has the former. These presumed distinctions between conceptions of form and matter are criticized via the new materialist turn, of which Bennett is a key player. Bennett  has promoted arguments that complicate the human’s relationship to matter, particularly noting that the human becomes an assemblage of agential matter. Yet she is not the only voice here. Indeed, there is a growing list of Black feminist new materialists who argue that new materialism overrepresents the human as White and male (Ahuja; Ferreira da Silva; Jackson; Leong; Moten). Leong argues that much of new materialism has taken the human for granted, particularly in its investigation of the Anthropocene. In the new materialist gloss over the racial implications of the Anthropocene, Leong argues that such work considers the Anthropocene as an “environmental impact of technology,” which is deemed “the ‘net effect’ of an undifferentiated ‘human’ activity” (p. 3). Alternatively, Leong argues that we must reconsider the human as a Western project, which suggests that the environmental crisis is not some universal responsibility (even as it now threatens people worldwide), but the result of Western transnational capitalism’s resource extraction. Thus, Leong calls for us to reread groups like BLM beyond the politics of the Western human: “we can read the declaration that ‘Black Lives Matter’ as a call to return racial blackness to a form that matters, to a form, in other words, that is matter,” making Leong ask, “how do black life and death become matter, and what is at stake in the demand that they should assume such form?” (p. 2; emphasis added). Leong argues that what the call for Black lives to matter points toward is a radical critique of matter, one which does not reduce BLM (as in the group) to the question of mutual recognition but to historical non/relations of blackness as the thing in Western philosophical and scientific discourses.

Ferreira da Silva  similarly argues that BLM is so controversial because it signifies the emergence of a political subject absent self-determination, in other words, that which is the privileged domain of man. Historically, blackness does not assume the capacity to determine for oneself, but instead “the category of blackness serves the ordered universe of determinacy and the violence and violations it authorizes” (Ferreira da Silva, para. 14). Jackson likewise contends that blackness is too often theorized along the lines of a lost or denied humanity. This presumes that blackness is historically assumed to be a human relation, and by returning humanity back to Black people, racism will end. Alternatively, Jackson argues that the human is centrally a project of Western Europe and North America, which is to say that to become human assumes the enactment of racial violence against Black people, colonized people, and the dead objects that Bennett critiques.

In the case of slavery, humanization and captivity go hand in hand. Too often, our conception of anti-blackness is defined by the specter of “denied humanity,” “dehumanization,” or “exclusion,” yet, as Saidiya Hartman has identified in her pathbreaking study Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America, the process of making the slave relied on the abjection and criminalization of the enslaved’s humanity rather than the denial of it. Thus, humanization is not an antidote to slavery’s violence; rather, slavery is a technology for producing a kind of human (Jackson, p. 96). For Jackson, the enactment of violence against Black and colonized people, but also against Western constructs of “nature,” has been an important step in conceptions of humanization. The “kind of human” that she points toward in the final sentence of the quote is not universal but is overrepresented as White and male. Indeed, this human presumes racialized forms of violence against those things that lack self-determination, historically matter and Blacks, as a vehicle toward whiteness.

While communication studies as a field has largely theorized BLM via human questions of recognition (Biesecker; Hesford; Johnson; Mackin), Black feminist new materialists lay the groundwork to ask a question that communication studies does not: Why do Black lives equal matter? Their answer is simple yet complex: Blackness does not align with the constructs of the human developed at the same time that matter was theorized. Instead, modern scientists and philosophers were theorizing humans and matter as distinct categories in a context wherein they were justifying the classification of Black slaves as legally three-fifths human.

Black feminist new materialists suggest that communication studies would do well to critically question what constitutes the human. In the process, we must not put “race” scholarship in one category and “theory” in another, as has been a trend of much critical scholarship (in and outside of the field) that imagines itself as not interrogating race at all. Instead, Black feminist new materialism scholars suggest that communication studies must think of theory as an inherently racialized project, whether race is theorized at the forefront or not. Two theorists who can bolster such an argument are figures whom I believe are not turned to enough in communication studies: Fanon and McKittrick.

On Communicating Matter: Fanon, McKittrick, and the Reproduction of Blackness

In Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon illustrated a critical scene that will be forever tied to popular discussions of his work: his interaction with a small White child on a train, as the child screams, “Look, a Negro! Maman, a Negro!” (Fanon, p. 93). Fanon described a feeling of terror as White eyes judgingly gazed at him. He smiled awkwardly back, hoping they would look away at some point. In that moment, Fanon noted that he was not Black in and of himself. Indeed, he hoped for what he could not have—”quite simply to be a man among men” (p. 92). Instead, he observed that he was Black for the small White child: “I sense, I see in this white gaze that it’s the arrival not of a new man, but of a new type of man, a new species. A Negro, in fact!” (p. 95). It was this that Fanon called his “racial schema” taking over his “bodily schema”: He was no longer able to walk around as a “man,” going about his day without thinking about his blackness; instead, he was forced to walk around, whether he wanted to or not, with the “livery” of the Black man (p. 94). His blackness was a tool, a technology that served a function not for Fanon but for the utility of White self-conceptions. Another way to say this is that in this encounter Fanon did not have Kantian self-determination; he was outer-determined by another’s monopoly of self-determination. Of course, the White mother politely apologized to the “handsome” Black man (Fanon, p. 94). The world was, presumably, all back to normal—for everyone except for Fanon.

As I have noted elsewhere (Towns), Fanon provided an opening to rethink communication studies because he suggested that his body was not of his own making. An important update on Fanon from McKittrick provides more clarification on his interaction with the small White child. According to McKittrick, Fanon’s engagement mirrors the historical technologization of the Black body. She argues that Black female slave bodies were deemed “reproductive technologies,” oftentimes conflated with nature, and always already made useful for man: “Because female slave bodies are transformed into profitable sexual and reproductive technologies, they come to represent ‘New World’ inventions and are consequently rendered axiomatic public objects. Black women are the mechanics of slavery” (p. 46; emphasis added). Therefore, the Black female slave was deemed a “reproductive technology.” For Moten, such technologization of Black female bodies reframes Black radicalism as an always already Black feminist, anti-capitalist project, as the centrality of Black female bodies (particularly as rapeable by White men and breedable with other Black male slaves) hold “value” not comprehended in the economists’ and Marxists’ readings of commodities.

McKittrick brings Fanon’s work into a Black feminist materialism that outlines the technologization of the Black female body in particular and the Black body in general for whiteness. Fanon and McKittrick hold key importance for our work in communication studies, which is to say that both mark the Black body as the tool utilized in the service of Western self-conceptions of race, gender, and sexuality. Drawing from Fanon and McKittrick, I argue that the Black body functions as a communicative medium, or an extension of Western self-conceptions, so often overdetermined by whiteness. On one hand, the Black female slave was not a woman, in the sense of man’s historical opposite (Spillers), but a commodity that was materialized, sensually and communicatively, via man’s articulation of her as Black (i.e., not fully human). On the other hand, the Black female slave served a purpose in which gendered binaries were vehicles only for the White master’s sustenance: She, or rather her capacity to give birth, was essential to the capitalistic, colonialist maintenance of plantation politics (King). What this means is that the Black female slave was not much different from matter or media: Violence against her was a tool, a vehicle through which man continued to maintain his dominance over nature and the “lower beings” who did not rise up to his level. Put differently, while matter and media hold differences, drawing from Peters, I point toward their similarities to note both have historically been used as necessary for Western self-conceptions of race and gender.

Fanon’s engagement on the train with the small White child has been assessed in affect studies, geography, and postcolonial theory (Ahmed; Lazarus; McKittrick), but I want to point this project in another direction: Fanon’s body was a communicative medium through which the small child self-conceptualized whiteness. Put into Jackson’s terms, enactments of racial violence against the Black body extended some people into their humanity—a humanity overdetermined by what we now call “White masculinity.” Without surprise, the new materialist turn for media and communication studies (Huhtamo & Parikka; Parikka; Peters) has often made use of the work of someone who similarly thought about technologies as extensions: McLuhan. McLuhan once argued that media were “any extension of man.” If we take McLuhan literally—particularly his lack of critical discussion of the racialized and gendered implications of his man—we can reconsider media, matter, and blackness as interrelated: Each has been conceived as a vehicle, as a technology that extends some people into their humanity. McLuhan’s conceptualization leads us to the same problematic that Fanon and McKittrick attend to: The figure that used Black bodies as extensions for his self-conception of humanity is Western man. Let’s say this differently: Fanon’s Black body is the matter that mobilized the White child’s assertion of self-determination. Unlike Kant’s man, Fanon did not have self-determination, but he was brought into sensual, communicative life via man’s articulation of him as matter.

I want to posit a consistency between both matter and media that we in communication are apt to address: Both serve a function for the highly raced, gendered, sexual, classed construct that has historically been labeled “man.” Thus, there is an isomorphism between matter and media, one which has been suggested in the work of Peters: Both have been considered as reflective of man’s self-conceptions, which I call in an upcoming book “racial narcosis”—the narcissistic replication of whiteness as overdetermining the Western construct of the human. If Black bodies (not Black people) are matter, are media, then such bodies serve a communicative function that classifies the human as largely White and male (or, at least, as capable of being closest to whiteness and maleness). In short, when we in communication studies talk about human communication, we often do not acknowledge that this human is a trope for whiteness and maleness.

Wherein lies the “humanity” of the Black female slave, whose Black body functioned as what Spillers calls a grammarian construct, invented at the same time that Western European and North American scientists and philosophers were thinking humanity? It was not in her, biologically or ontologically. One will not find it anywhere in which she was a participant, or subject, as the construct of the human was structured upon assumptions that she had no capacity for thought and/or self-determination. Alternatively, a better question is, wherein lies the Black female slave’s materiality (matter)? This was everywhere, specifically as that materiality was made legible by the Western construct of man: it was in the slave master’s self-determination that rendered her a rapeable object of sexual pleasure and/or producer of more slaves; it was in man’s assumed benevolent self-determined attempt to “bring her into history”; it was also in his human need to maintain himself as a neutral project of Western development, an inevitability that equated Black female slaves with Darwinian nature, or that which man selected for his own maintenance. The Black female slave was not Black or female in and of herself but for White people. She was a medium, there to narcissistically reflect White self-conceptions and self-determination as constitutive of Western humanity. The end of racial slavery did not destroy this nonrelation, as is evident in the protests of groups like BLM, Say Her Name, and the Black Youth Project. Instead, this nonrelation transforms in new ways, all designed to continue a human-as-distinct-from-matter, fabricated for us long ago by old, dead White men.

Who is the “Human” in Human Communication?

We have now taken human communication in a drastically new direction, one which the history of the field might suggest it is not ready to engage. Still, I argue that the human in human communication studies must be troubled. Or, rather, the human must be stressed as reflective of a particular “genre of the human” (Wynter), one which seems to largely reflect a White, middle-classed, heterosexual man as the figure most closely and consistently associated with humanity. To read the Black “subject” into this framework is to apply subjectivity to a Western construction of knowledge that Kant warned was never supposed to have subjectivity in the first place. This is not to say that there are no alternatives, but to question why theories of the human and of subjectivity must be overrepresented by White male theorists from Western Europe and North America.

Thus, human communication is monopolized by a very specific genre of people, as suggested in #CommunicationSoWhite (Chakravartty, Kuo, Grubbs, & McIlwain). Yet this entails also that such monopolization can be called into question, not via a blanketed laying of humanity onto all of us, but with a radical critical intervention into considering what constitutes the human in the first place. If it is a human theory of communication, one structured along the lines of recognition and self-determination, then it may be inapplicable to the Black bodies onto which it is forced. This is not to say that Black people cannot communicate, or that such theories have no utility for understanding blackness, but it is to call into question the context of racial violence in which Black people’s communication exists in the first place. It is in a context tied to slavery and colonization that formulated me as what Moten calls a “speaking commodity.” In the wake of slavery, my speech can be presented as a neutral, benevolent mode in which we all can end racism (“dialogue”).

Yet if racial slavery and colonial violence are the main reasons that I can communicate this article in the first place, then do we require new grammars (Spillers) to provide a radical destruction of racism and sexism? If my capacity to communicate is not a relation of self-determination and/or choice (Spivak), but instead the product of gratuitous violence, do the communicative methods and theories of the colonizer (or that which first classified me as “Black” and “male”) provide an escape from racial violence? Maybebut only if we begin to have a different conversation on the human and matter engaged in the theories and methods from where we start. Indeed, my relationship to matter holds within it the seeds of the end of the human and matter, troubling the presumed stability between both. The commodity does speak; whether one cares to listen to “it” or not is a different question.