Anti-Blackness and the Economy of Outrage
I am burned out on outrage for anti-Blackness and yet I have experienced an incredible pressure to feel outrage and something approaching a sense of guilt. This now makes sense to me as the function of outrage is to animate us to embrace a temporary spontaneity, and this is then utilized to form what I refer to as the “economy of outrage”. Here I will briefly discuss the ways in which the economy of outrage sustains anti-Blackness and how we may cut through this ideological veil and perhaps reorient the necessity for material struggle.
First, a definition. The economy of outrage refers to a system of mediating valuation of outrage that then regulates the dispensation of time, energy, and money to address this outrage. In other words, what is granted the “honor” of receiving the coveted label of “outrageous” is curated — sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously — as well as the resources expended to address it. As we will find shortly however, this curation also serves a dual function of sustaining the very thing that we are supposed to be outraged over in the first place.
When applied to anti-Blackness, the economy of outrage implicitly takes the concept of the gratuitous violence accompanying social death and runs with it in the most literal form and thus stripped bare of how encompassing said violence is. Per Merriam-Webster, the relevant definition of gratuitous is “not called for by the circumstances: not necessary, appropriate, or justified”. A strict utilization of this understanding of gratuitous in the context of anti-Blackness allows for a great amount of wiggle-room, whereby we can interject the supremacy of the Law as well as certain social values (i.e. Western ethics) to determine what is “necessary, appropriate, or justified”. All of these terms themselves beg the question and are loaded based on considerations shaped by Western ethics.
This has broad implications more generally. For example, we are left with the absurdity of the term “police brutality”, as if policing itself is somehow not brutal at its very core. But this absurdity — this exceptionalization of “violence” — is necessary to render suffering intelligible. “Police brutality”, as opposed to “policing”, permits redress and therefore establishes the possibility for reform and this possibility for reform therefore sharpens the perfection of slavery. Thus in the economy of outrage, “police brutality”, as opposed to “policing”, deserves outrage and therefore it deserves energy, time, and money to address. However, this investment at some point splinters, whereby energy and time become fleeting and certain other resources such as money and infrastructure become long-term, funneled into sustaining the very thing that fomented the outrage in the first place.
Those of us who are radicals, revolutionaries, abolitionists, what-have-you have therefore already recognized that our scope must be extended beyond mere “police brutality” to “policing” generally. But even this is limiting in scope. As Calvin Warren notes in Ontological Terror, ”black thinking (and postmetaphysics) must ask the unasked question ‘How is it going with black being?’” Warren identifies this as the most important question in philosophy. Indeed, ignoring this question makes it such that “all forms of destruction are just reconstitutions, since the world continues to use the Negro (as black and nothing) to forget Being and the sadistic pleasure of this forgetfulness.” Contrary to how it might appear at first however, this is not a purely philosophical inquiry, as this question is interminably bound with the relation between Black form and formlessness. Therefore, put another way, we might ask by extension “How is it going with Black life?”
The Afro-pessimist may insist that this question is a distraction from the question of Black (non)Being, but I would posit that this distraction is a necessary one. The contradiction between Black ontological abjection and the diversity of ways in which Black people experience this abjection is in some respects the lifeblood of anti-Blackness. Black life is not read as Black abjection and Black abjection is not read as Black life. In other words, redress for the abjection of those Black is unintelligible which then silences the struggle for land, bread, and water, and therefore filters it instead to present this struggle as atomized demands for alleviation. This process is mediated by an economy of outrage which is facilitated via an interplay between media, the State, the Law, and institutions such as the academy and non-profits, i.e. systems, structures, and institutions that require Black death to not only function but exist in the first place.
Therefore, “How is it going with Black life?” can become “How is it going with Black bodies?” As Calvin Warren argues, “The black body is but an ontic illusion with devastating realities. It provides form for a nothing that metaphysics works tirelessly to obliterate”. The Black body therefore becomes a toy (Fanon) or living laboratory (Spillers) — it becomes a site, a playground even, for generating and destroying various interplays between phylogeny, ontogeny, sociogeny, and ecogeny (word to Bl3ssing). The Black body must therefore be removed from its land and starved, it must be enslaved and put to work, it must be criminalized and hunted down and captured.
This translation of an attempt to obliterate nothingness into violence against Black bodies is a fundamentally absurd one. My aim here is to point out that the way that this absurdity is brought “down to earth” and made legible to nonblacks is through slavery and colonialism and through structures, institutions, and systems that reinscribe the leigtimcy of Man’s science, Man’s religion, and Man’s ontogeny, sociogeny, and ecogeny. Because all of this relies upon a disruption and (not entirely!) obliteration of indigenous African relations with respects to labor, land, ecological inhabitations, we are then remade as “simply” Black and abjected from these material struggles. This abjection, which supplants mere alienation from material struggle is Warren’s onticide, and the fluidity of the formlessness of Blackness which utilizes it to give shape to the various modes of Being for nonblack people is embodied by Zakiyyah Iman Jackson’s ontological plasticity. Further, this is where Afro-pessimism stumbles for me, as while it is true that struggle over land and water is one that is legible within humanism, the simultaneous recognition of the incommunicability of anti-Blackness ironically makes this struggle necessary. The ecological inhabitation of Black people is not recognized because Black (non)Being is silenced. If the anti-Black world needs Black then a disruption of the ecological disconnect that is perpetually sustained is needed.
Therefore, the lived experience of the Black that Fanon spoke of is one of a variety that is violently subsumed and simultaneously atomized. We are meant to perceive Black life in disarticulated bits and pieces, some characterized as “joy” but others deemed “outrageous”. Thus I would like to ask, what would happen if we were to divest from the economy of outrage and refuse the divorcing of symptom from sociogeny and ecogeny? Put another way, what if these “outrages” are not such, but rather what is to be expected when inhabiting a world of anti-Blackness — a world where, to echo Christina Sharpe, “anti-Blackness is as pervasive as climate”?
To be clear, this is not to invalidate Black rage, sadness, or any other expression or experience of emotional reaction to horrific acts of anti-Black violence. The murder of a Black person at the hands of police is cause for rage and grieving. What I am suggesting is that our time, energy, money, and resources no longer be invested in outrage. Rather, they must be invested into developing power “from below, through the margins, in self determination,” as succinctly put by the Afrofuturist Abolitionists of the Americas. This is, again, where Afro-pessimism stumbles for me, as the Afro-pessimist may argue that self-determination is a humanistic venture and therefore has limits to its capacity to rupture with a world of anti-Blackness. While I at a certain level agree with this interpretation, this lacks the specificity to address the material applications of self-determination and its effects upon the most marginal. Put another way, the entanglement of self-determination and (Man’s) humanism thus far has resulted in its employment meaning the concentration of power in the hands of those who are not at the margins and if we take upon Denise Ferreira Da Silva’s description of anti-Blackness as being “the authority to deploy total violence”, we find that some lie at the cusp of reenslavement more closely than others and this is mediated through transmisogynoir as fulcrum.
We can thus begin to make sense of untangling the hypervisibility of the deaths of Black trans women and the attempts to frame this as a “stumbling block” for Black freedom. Black people in general are positioned to be the “problem child” of “racial unity” through the illegibility any form of redress for Black abjection, however through an understanding of transmisogynoir as fulcrum, we find that Black trans women are positioned as the “problem child” of “Black unity”, or perhaps more accurately, “Black Progress”.
Indeed, Progress and the Trick of Time is sustained through Black suffering. As we continue to be haunted by slavery, the veil of Progress which promises better in the future and deflects from the question of what Black life is like in the now is leveraged via transmisogynoir. The interplay between racialization and sexing, presented in tandem through Man’s biomythonic narratives, allows for nonblack reactionary forces to point to Black trans women as the embodiment of the deterioration of “traditional” values embodied by white supremacist cisheteropatriarchy. This is then taken up by Black reactionary forces who themselves are invested in Progress but share the material interest and aspirations of nonblack reactionary forces. We have Progressed upwards from slavery, they argue, but when faced with the reality of the death of Black trans women and therefore transmisogynoir as fulcrum, the foundations of this investment in Progress is ruptured at its core.
These reactionary forces are then tailed by certain institutions such as non-profits which by necessity serve as extensions of the State and act as vehicles for counter-insurgency. Non-profits act as a locus of investment in the economy of outrage through consuming time, energy, money and resources generally of those of us outraged. They reduce acts to demands. They convince us that as these forms of violence are mere outrages, they are anchors for pushing for concessions, concessions that either never come or when they do, are even far more distilled and are then reversed almost immediately.
If we are to recognize the absurdity of anti-Blackness as an attempt to obliterate nothing, then perhaps it is necessary that we embrace absurdity, specifically an absurdity that is unrecognizable to the current order and thus decimates absurdity. In other words, perhaps this is the “new humanism” that Fanon sought out — a new humanism that is fundamentally incongruent with the humanism of Euromodernity precisely because the World is being assaulted by nothing. Practically speaking, this requires that we exist at a state whereby revolts such as summer 2020 do not occur simply because the stress point of the economy of outrage has been reached and somewhat cracked open but rather they occur because we can make them and because it is in our interests.