January 2015: Darryl Pinckney reports from the front line in Ferguson, Missouri, for the New York Review of Books. He is present for the announcement that the police officer Darren Wilson will not be indicted for killing Michael Brown.
Reverend Osagyefo Sekou, a Boston pastor and well-known civil rights activist, is also present and welcomes Pinckney into his group whilst they look for shelter following the announcement and the subsequent civil unrest. Riotous scenes of social self-harm travel around the world.
Sekou, despite being a staunch advocate for nonviolent protest and resolution, does not blame Ferguson’s residents and their supporters for attacking the police and the town itself:
[Reverend Sekou] feels that the system hasn’t worked and now needs to be born again. The young demonstrating in Ferguson had faced tear gas and assault rifles. “There isn’t any political terrain for them to engage in other than putting their bodies on the line.”
(As ever, I miss Jehu’s Twitter.)
What Jehu’s post does is articulate a position that I’ve been thinking about for some time now but he does so more astutely and more succinctly than I ever could — and it is the sort of treacherous position that it is better not to articulate at all if you can’t articulate it well.
Reading Jehu’s post has made me want to pull further at the frayed threads of the Left’s inability to write off humanity as Nick Land supposedly dares them to do.
For the longest time, I thought — mistakenly — that people just didn’t get Land — and in large part because they just didn’t get Marx. There is no way, I thought, you could lay Land and Marx side by side and not see they were talking about the same thing.
I have to admit now that I was wrong. The Left will never get Land because Land only offers them death. The idea that death is the culmination of history is a concept that can never be embraced by the Left.
This is a position I’ve tried to explored (tentatively) on this blog a few times over the past few months, or at least I feel I have orbited this point. It was also the central drive behind a paper written in late 2016 which was to be my first foray into notions of community and exit — Monastic Vampirism:
Let us take a shuffling step away from Left melancholia towards of a new Gothic politic – from Old Left to New Left to Dead Left.
There is a sense, in this (now old) articulation, that the invocation of death is facetious but I have always taken it seriously.
The Black Lives Matter movement in the US has been a primary inspiration that I have always been dissuaded from considering head-on (a fair suggestion).
BLM is a humanist political movement that has been built upon chants in which protesters self-identified with the deceased. Desiring to build on this sentiment is not to invoke All Lives Matter but rather to try to learn something from the communality of death that All Lives Matter fails to account for; to learn from the specificity of BLM in the aid of other specificities, all of which orbit each other in their intensive affectivities.
As such, these issues of race and black radicalism have lurked constantly in the background of my readings and writings over the past year but they have always ended up as footnotes and offcuts, primarily because it doesn’t feel like my place to articulate a cultural perspective that is not my own.
I also have a number of friends who are much better informed about these issues than I am.
Despite this, as I find myself reading various elucidations of the horror of whiteness and its disintegration in so much SF, to avoid an adjacent recognition of the horror of blackness (whether in its xenophobic or xenophilic mode) feels increasingly short-sighted.
If we are to learn anything about how to proceed from moments of collective trauma, ontological questions of blackness are essential.
What is key here for me here on this blog is the following observation:
In countless examples of weird fiction, it is seemingly through community alone that the Outside can be reached and harnessed (whilst nonetheless remaining intolerable).
My essay on the Vast Abrupt is my most fully-formed exploration of this, but there are still a lot of avenues left under-explored, and prior to considering blackness more specifically I want to elaborate on the echos of (Afro)pessimism in pop culture more generally before diving down into sociocultural specificity.
It is best to start with the example that first occasioned the observation (particularly in its relationship to race): H.P. Lovecraft’s The Call of Cthulhu.
In the tale, Lovecraft — brandishing his now notorious racism — describes the fearsome Cthulhu Cult as an “indescribable horde of human abnormality”; a naked “hybrid spawn” consisting mostly of seamen with “a sprinkling of negroes and mulattoes, largely West Indians or Brava Portuguese from the Cape Verde Islands, [giving] a colouring of voodooism to the heterogeneous cult.”
Whilst individuals seeking the Outside in Lovecraft’s stories are often atomised, relatively isolated on their quests to the other side of the knowable, the Cthulhu Cult is instead a group of Outside-worshippers who seem to get their power from their collectivism.
Cthulhu nonetheless remains intolerable to the individual, as is made all too apparent when members of the cult are arrested and questioned, their madness exacerbated in their isolation from each other, but something about the group’s collective hysteria nonetheless allows them to channel, summon and withstand Cthulhu, making their group into a material social threat.
John Cussans‘ recent book Undead Uprising does well to (indirectly) unpack the strange power dynamics at play here, suggested in particular by Lovecraft’s timely invocation of “voodooism”.
In his book, Cussans charts the relationship of “voodooism” to political uprisings in Haiti through the figure of the zombie as both Haitian revolutionary and Western pop horror icon, exploring the various ways that black bodies have been made analogous to the Outside in the West.
Whilst such examples, including Lovecraft’s, are evidence of a pervasive societal racism, our more recent zombic “outsiders” are supposedly less racialized, becoming (symbolically) more critical of society as a whole.
Cussans writes that the “zombie-figure, beginning its popular unlife as a ghastly allegory for the horrors of colonial slavery and the potential of humans to be reduced, by sorcery and commerce, to soul-less, living-dead cadavers in the 1920s, has developed into the most ubiquitous figure for the end of humanity as we know it at the end of history.”
He also, notably, highlights a split between the figure of the zombie as the living-dead and the zombie as the living possessed by a higher power. Through a close reading of William Seabrook’s Haitian memoirs, which popularised the figure of the zombi in the US, Cussans notes that although
the zombi and the possessed person will become peculiarly interwoven when the former migrates into cinema, they were for Seabrook very different kinds of being. The zombi represented an individual devoid of all will and subjective agency, reduced to the mere husk of a person, forced to labour mindlessly like a brute or automaton. The person possessed by a god, on the other hand, despite sharing some of the uncanny, automatic behaviour and hollowed-out subjectivity of a zombi, was something superhuman, ecstatic and miraculous. […] Such idealisation of the “divinely unconscious automaton” before which we are “less than nothing” is further evidence of the paradoxical relationship between the living-death of modern, mechanical, industrialised labour and the revitalising Dark Demon of Negro mystery cults […] a mystical idealisation of divinity-incarnate that ultimately gives way to ego-obliterating ecstasy and collective, orgiastic excess.
The “hybrid spawn” of the Cthulhu cult evokes an early interweaving of these beings albeit twisted through Lovecraft’s lens. This cult of subalterns, possessed by the great priest Cthulhu, are themselves “less than nothing” in the eyes of Inspector John R. Legrasse whilst also being representatives for “something far deeper and older than negro fetichism.”
Cthulhu may be indifferent, but his enslaved followers nonetheless embody the image of both political revolution and societal Outside in their mad frenzy. Here, and throughout Cussans’ exhaustive mapping (which we will come back to), we can see how the zombie becomes a figure that embodies the Afropessimistic sentiment that Jehu ends his post with:
There is nothing of existing society we wish to reclaim, nothing to salvage, no material with which to build a better world in this one.
The world is irreconcilably antiblack.
Communism wants nothing less than to destroy the world.