If, in medieval theology, purgatory was a transitional state, in which souls are purified on their way to heaven, then what the modern era has invented is the purgatorial as a mode in its own right. Is this not the mode of Beckett’s universe — a universe in which compulsion and waiting never end, a universe without any possibility of climax, resolution or transformation, a universe that is closed, but which will never finally run down into a state of total entropic dissolution?
Yesterday I wrote about how we all have questions regarding the future of the revolution, but these are the wrong questions to ask. We have to start, as Deleuze implored us, from the middle — and that immediately presents us with an interesting challenge. What are we currently in the middle of?
This might feel like the wrong question to ask on election day. Elections are so often advertised as stopgaps or bookends — as the beginning or end of something. But the feeling that shrouds this long and uneventful election cycle is that, either way, we are in for more of the same — either more of the same of the last four years, or more of the same of the eight years before that. As such, we should watch attentively, and wait to ask our questions tomorrow.
But tomorrow is here and there’s a problem: still nothing has changed.
Last night I fell asleep to the BBC’s coverage of the election, with Andrew Neil and Katty Kay droning on in my singular earphone, with my other ear firmly against the pillow, willing at least half my brain to sleep.
The following morning I woke up to their voices again. My immediate thought was how nothing had changed in their demeanours or appearances. Andrew Neil, in particular, I thought would look more haggard than usual but he remained unmoved, like a bitter waxwork.
At 8.30am, Neil announced that he and his co-host would soon be going off the air. There was an audible frustration in Neil’s voice as he harked back to a few hours earlier, right around the time I fell asleep, when the first votes were counted and came in. Plenty more votes had been counted since then but there was no satisfaction to be gleaned from the changes to the board. Because, in reality, nothing had changed. The colouring-in of the parts of the map were cosmetic markers of a repetition of four years ago. The occasional swing state swung but the election dragged on, like the rest of the world, in its frenetic stasis.
We live, as Mark Fisher wrote, in a purgatorial pseudo-present.
Perhaps the feeling most characteristic of our current moment is a mixture of boredom and compulsion. We are bored even as we are fascinated, and the limitless distraction allows us to evade confronting the actual finitude of time available to us as mortal beings — even as death is closing in on us.
We are bored by this endless coverage but watch it anyway.
Still, Deleuze’s argument stands. It is this pseudo-present, this middle, that we need to push off from. From endless lockdowns to endless elections, now is the best time to shake off our libidinal attachments to the familiar, to divest ourselves from that which has now pooled and gone stagnant.
If yesterday’s post remains relevant, it is to forge a path that separates the action needed from Trump’s primary tactic. Even in declaring an early victory like some arrogant despot, the intention is always to keep his supporters in a state of constant agitation and excitement, but theirs is “a stationary voyage”, as Deleuze might call it. They scream about change whilst standing still, and that’s what Trump wants. With him, there is always something to get riled up about. Even as nothing happens and nothing changes, the illusory of propulsive action is a powerful one.
What shocked me most last night was how deeply pathological this sentiment is, not least amongst apparently educated conservative voters. Capitalist realism was present and accounted for in every one of the BBC’s vox pops.
The most shocking example, to me, came during an interview with two black Republicans in North Carolina, a man and a woman. The woman, when asked what the most pressing issue of this election was for her, replied:
I feel like what is most important is that, in America, period, our liberties and our freedoms are being threatened by a socialist agenda… I believe Donald Trump is the person who will keep [the success of that agenda] from happening.
The reporter then asked, “What do you worry about most about a socialist agenda, in the way you understand it?” She replied:
With socialism, it actually — to me — it takes away incentive to be productive. Socialism is a form of income and wealth redistribution… I feel like that has hurt, in particular, the black community a lot. Welfare is a form of socialism — which doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be forms of social safety net; I believe in that — but the way our system, I believe, is set up, it de-incentivises production, and one way that has happened in the black community is that it has taken fathers out of the homes, and then we have a lot of fatherlessness. So when you de-incentivise productivity, being accountable, it really does hurt the family and … the community at large.
I found this logic to be strange, not least because the opposite argument surely makes more sense? Surely it is the institution of the family that de-incentivises productivity among wayward fathers? When a family unit is established, beyond entering into a kind of social bond, there are societal pressures to then materially provide for your family, and a lot of pride and shame revolves around an individual’s capacity to do that. If fathers are fleeing, maybe it is because they can’t handle the pressure? In that respect, there’s an argument to be made that socialism is for the children. Take away that pressure and maybe more families would stay together…
I thought about this interview a lot more the following morning, however. Shortly after I got out of bed, once the BBC’s rolling overnight coverage ended, there was a knock on the door. A book delivery. (Bad, XG! Stop buying books!) It was Frank B. Wilderson III‘s Afropessimism. I had ordered it after the book came up during the last XG reading group session.
Wilderson’s pessimism combines clinical depression with the black radical tradition. Theory is interwoven with memoir — my kind of book! — and the memoir sections, in particular, are rife with darkly humorous postmodern paradoxes. One vignette reveals Wilderson in the year 2000, for instance, the year he suffered a nervous breakdown, pealing himself off the floor in order to open up his medicine cabinet. “There they were, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors and chlordiazepoxide, my two best friends in orange-brown bottles.” Unexpectedly, he flushes them down the toilet and heads out the door — just in time too; he was late for his Lacan seminar.
As decisive a gesture this may have been for Wilderson — a dark affirmation “to make madness my refuge; to face the fact that my death makes the world a decent place to live; to embrace my abjection and antagonism that made me Humanity’s foil” — his embrace is not so much a nihilistic deferral to a social-death drive but a jouissance regarding his own racialised purgatory.
The mention of Lacan is telling. Lacan, in his later years, emerged as a purgatorial theorist par excellence, seeing the 20th century as a “concentration-camp universe”. Frantz Fanon similarly paints a picture of the universe as one giant plantation, and is arguably a bigger influence on Wilderson, but what Wilderson retains from the late Lacan is important; he retains his perversion.
His Sadeian vision of black life inverts the queen of inversion, Juliette. It is in this sense that Wilderson advocates for a kind of black masochism. But, socially understood, masochism is not simply sadism’s opposite. Masochism derives from sadism; is sadism internalised. It is a default libidinal position under capitalism but to know it is to see the world differently.
Masochism, then, is a madness but one acquired through the full comprehension of one’s limits. Inspired by the philosophy of Spinoza, Lacan argues that “a madman is someone who has such an appropriate idea of madness that he sees it not as fact but rather as a truth man carries within him as a limit on his freedom.” For Lacan, Spinoza and Freud were fellow travellers in this regard. As Elizabeth Roudinesco writes, summarising Lacan’s Freudian-Spinozist position, “the only thing one can be guilty of, in the context of psychoanalysis, is ‘giving up on one’s desire.’ In other words, the Freudian ethic is a Spinozan ethic, tending to see the truth of being in the deployment of desire.” From one perspective, we can see this as an acquiescence — to give up on one’s desire for emancipation, for instance. But this is only the lost desire that we fear — the true desire to be given up is our desire to be dominated and enslaved.
Inspired by the Frankfurt school, Lacan wrote on this inversion by conjoining the writings of Immanuel Kant and the Marquis de Sade. For Lacan, de Sade completes Kant’s critique of practical reason and prepares the categorical imperative to become a proto-capitalist performance principle. The categorical imperative, taken to extremes, then, is a torturous work ethic; as Deleuze similarly argued in Coldness and Cruelty, it is the tandem imposition of a sadistic superego and a masochist ego.
Wilderson seems to take a Lacanian approach to blackness. What appears, at first, to be a giving-up on the dream of emancipation is accompanied by a giving-up on the dream of incentivisation as well. His afropessimism is a reimagining of the black subject of postmodernity as a subject caught in a purgatory between the two, a catch-22, with each side of the divide ideologically driven (shoved, whipped, forced) forwards by the unimaginable weight of white expectation.
Wilderson quotes Saidiya Hartman, invoking the Sadeian homo sacer of contemporary blackness:
The slave is the object or the ground that makes possible the existence of the bourgeois subject and, by negation or contradistinction, defines liberty, citizenship, and the enclosures of the social body.
To run the risk of overstepping the lines of my own experience, and contributing to that white expectation — something I might pessimistically declare is unavoidable — reading Wilderson and Wilderson on Hartman, I feel haunted by that black Trump supporter. Her purgatory, which she is voting to sustain, is not just the expression of an internalised slave narrative but a subjective position far less distinct and all the rage. She occupies the middle — the middle-class — the position of the house-slave — both slave to productivity and the bourgeois subject; capitalist sadist and black masochist. She speaks about her own community as the member of a managerial class rather than as a would-be emancipator.
Reading Wilderson, it feels like, despite his interest in the black radical tradition, in Marxism and psychoanalysis, he perversely identifies with that black voter. He sees himself, in writing his theories, as yet another member of the managerial, telling black people what to do; instructing them and employing them with certain political tasks. Clearly, there is no redemption — not for Wilderson, as he talks candidly about his bourgeois academic existence or his marriage to a white woman; or for anyone else who finds themselves sharing a bed (literally or metaphorically) with those who would otherwise deny the value of their existence.
Afropessimism, then, is a structure of feeling, with emphasis placed on the feeling. But the structure itself is perhaps an afropurgatory. There is no liberation from production — be that capitalist production or the production of one’s own liberation. There is only limbo — and limbo, we might remember, is only the first circle of hell, but even these circles have steps. They are dreams within dreams. The last twenty-four hours have felt like a week; for black people waiting in line at polling booths, I imagine the wait is immeasurably longer.
But again, this pessimism needn’t be apathetic. If anything, it is a Lacanian-Spinozist nihilism, embracing the madness of postmodernity so as to better grasp its bounds. Only by knowing, with a violent intimacy, the limits of the present can we break through it. After all, purgatory, in its inaction, often seems infinite. It is the oppressive nature of that illusion that implores us to sit down and wait to die. But to make a home there and map it out is another approach altogether. A difficult and depressing one, but perhaps the most important. As Deleuze said, we focus too much on “the future of the revolution”, all the while obfuscating our revolutionary-becoming. We pontificate about where we want to be without understanding where we are. Wilderson, in his pessimism and his depression, seems to grasp this better than anyone.
A warning to the curious: to read him on election day might be the ultimate mark of masochism, but perhaps that’s what is needed…