A recent issue of The Black Scholar, edited by Alexander Weheliye, explores the relationship between black studies & black life. As many of the contributors argue, this relationship is about the knowledge structures and practices central to the ongoing problem of how to frame, understand, and engage the world we’ve inherited as modern, the world “modernity made.” We might describe this as the world that made blackness by unmaking black life, the world that created blackness as a speculative form: to be speculated upon and to speculate on its own life-making possibilities. Different kinds of imaginative leaps meet in speculation, and while “speculation” is not one of the key terms of the issue, it assembles and orients many of the articles, especially those by Tavia Nyong’o, Katherine McKittrick, C. Riley Snorton, and Denise Ferreira da Silva. I’m especially interested in articles by Nyong’o and McKittrick, because they press on one of my ongoing questions about what McKittrick terms, “origin stories”: simply, what are the genealogies of blackness? Where do we start? How do we start? And, once we’ve started, how do we proceed?
To answer these questions, McKittrick turns to the black archival presence found in “documents and ledgers”: “the list, the breathless numbers, the absolutely economic, the mathematics of the unliving.” It is a formula-generating mathematics that creates “historic blackness” for the New World—the world modernity made—a history that is, simultaneously, an unhistory (the Negro has no history), an unmaking served by economic attachment: “belongs to, bequeathed to, to be sold to.” As McKittrick writes, “New world blackness arrives through the ordinary, proved, former, certified, nearly worn worn-out archives of ledgers, accounts, price tags, and descriptors of economic worth and financial probability.” The commodity that speaks—this commodity that Marx made unspeakable.
What kind of origin story is this?
The brutalities of transatlantic slavery, summed up in archival histories that give us a bit of (asterisked-violated) blackness, put meaningful demands on our scholarly and activist questions. While the tenets and the lingering histories of slavery and colonialism produced modernity as and with and through blackness, this sense of time- space is interrupted by a more weighty, and seemingly truthful (truthful and truth-telling because iterated as scientific, proven, certified, objective), underside—where black is naturally malignant and therefore worthy of violation; where black is violated because black is naturally violent; where black is naturally unbelievable and is therefore naturally empty and violated; where black is naturally less-than-human and starving to death and violated; where black is naturally dysselected, unsurviving, swallowed up; where black is same and always and dead and dying; where black is complex and difficult and too much to bear and violated. The tolls of death and violence, housed in the archive, affirm black death. The tolls cast black as impossibly human and provide the conditions through which black history is currently told and studied. The death toll becomes the source.
How, given this unmaking work of the numbers archive, can black life, black survival, black being be narrated or imagined from such sources? Or, as McKittrick asks, “How do we ethically engage with mathematical and numerical certainties that compile, affirm, and honor bits and pieces of black death?”
At a historical moment when, to cite Simone Browne, humans are being turned into data, a moment when the logics and practices of the ledger and fungibility have found new opportunities in the bio-cataloguing of human life known as “biometrics”—recall, here, that Nigeria has partnered with Mastercard to issue “new” biometric identification documents—the “bits and pieces” of “black death” return garbed in bio-technological management. The logics and practices that unmade/unmake black life—the “mathematics” of modernity—return to “secure” what can only be the persistent unmaking of black life. As McKittrick puts it more elegantly, “it is challenging to think outside the interlocking data of black erasure, un-freedom, and anti-black violence,” especially as so many claims for justice today depend on assembling data on “black erasure, un-freedom, and anti-black violence.” How might black studies think with the mathematics of black life without reproducing the violent production of blackness as and through mathematics?
McKittrick meets Nyong’o at “the lie,” at the moment when the speculative logic of slavery meets the speculative leap into black life forms. In “Unburdening Representation,” Nyong’o reclaims the “gap” between the two meanings of representation—to depict and to stand for—as a space of “fabulation,” and, more specifically, “Afro-fabulation.” “A fabulist,” argues Nyong’o, “is a teller of tales, but he or she also discloses the powers of the false to create new possibilities.” A “teller of tales,” a storyteller and a liar, one who disrupts “the hostile and constraining conditions” of “emergence into representation.” “Possibility,” for Nyong’o is found at the “seam” or “joint,” the place Brent Edwards terms décalage, between the two forms of representation:
This misalignment of political and artistic representation is exploited by Afro-fabulation, which is thus not properly speaking solely an aesthetic strategy, or a political one, but a tactic for taking up the time and space between them.
“taking up the time and space between them.” One recalls that the archives that produce blackness in the New World deny that those termed black can represent—Phyllis (misspelled last name) cannot be a poet, declares Jefferson, and black figures cannot stand for those who can be citizens: I’m time-sliding to write this—themselves and others. Within the field of representation—within the oscillating meaning of that term—blackness will always have been a negation, an impossibility, what cannot stand “as” and “for” us. (Here, one might think about the African rejection of blackness as “not us.” The impossible chasm of blackness.)
Mining the gap (note the labor metaphor), Afro-fabulation “is always seeking to cobble something together, to produce connections and relations, however much the resultant seams show.” I want to think with Nyong’os metaphors here—I really should call him Tavia, but since I used McKittrick, protocol applies—of “cobbling,” and “connections and relations,” and “seams.” Of the various economies of motion and mobility (cobblers, shoes, the obsession with shoes in Toni Morrison’s A Mercy); and food, the cobbler as an assemblage of excess fruit, a sweetener, a palate cleanser, an act of love; “connections and relations,” the languages of invented kinship, fabulated genealogy, geographical assemblage (Glissant, Brand); and seams, which always lead me to clothing, the gorgeousness of Harryette Mullen’s Trimmings, the labor of the clothed and the unclothed slave body, the joins and joints of black labor, the uneven, the sutured, the knitted, the broken, that which enables “motion.” The seam that shows—the labor that refuses invisibility. The “lie” that refuses the truth-owning of data-production.
Speculation returns again, as that which joins McKittrick’s “mathematics” to Nyong’o’s “fabulation,” as part of the “demonic ground” where narrative does not supplant or unmake mathematics. Instead, the “speculative” becomes part of the asymptotic narration, the gap in representation—the gap in the archive, the gap in the lie, the gap that is the lie—through which and into which black life finds an “origin story” within life-unmaking blackness. Speculation, or the speculative, might be a method that reads into and past the data-affirming archive to see what black life forms might emerge, what acts of making and unmaking, what ways the human might emerge and undo the regime of Man.
Speculation is also a mode of being-present where one is impossible. It is the acts of appearance and disappearance, the haunting and the spook, the resistant object to cite Fred Moten, that inhabits what Christina Sharpe terms being “in the wake.” #staywoke, we say on twitter: remain conscious, aware, inhabit the insomnia that might (this is always speculative) save a black life, give a black life new form.
Learning from McKittrick and Nyong’o, I want to imagine “speculation” as a term central to black life and black studies, foundational to blackness as negation and possibility, a leap across and into the asymptote.