An End to "this" World Denise Ferreira da Silva interviewed by Susanne Leeb and Kerstin Stakemeier

Frente 3 de Fevereiro, „Flags" (Where are the People of Colour?), 2006/2017, here on the wall of SESC Pompéia, São Paulo, 2017.

Frente 3 de Fevereiro, „Flags" (Where are the People of Colour?), 2006/2017, here on the wall of SESC Pompéia, São Paulo, 2017.

In her texts, lecture-performances, and film-collaborations, Denise Ferreira da Silva has opposed figures of thought and modes of action that are authorized by and thus ongoingly constitutive of a genealogy of Enlightenment and Western modernist thinking. This tradition, despite an equally strong genealogy of critiques outlining its systemic violence in postcolonial and decolonizing theories and politics, remains a dominant norm (not only) for discourses on art and (its) theories today. As Ferreira da Silva argues, this tradition has been integral for the racial subjugation of indigenous people and people of color. It has served as the precondition for slavery and colonialism, and today leads to continued racial violence. Still, after decades of fighting back, the world is witness to extreme injustices and the production of “no-bodies,” as Ferreira da Silva puts it – a term shaped in distinction from Giorgio Agamben’s notion of “bare life.” In her 2007 book Toward A Global Idea of Race, it is thus the “transparent I” of enlightened subjectivity that comes under attack. Though this “transparent I” has itself been criticized, especially in continental philosophies and feminist writings throughout the 20th century, Ferreira da Silva makes the claim that those criticisms hardly touched the systemic function this concept carries for racial subjugation, and that they remain insufficiently radical in their rejections.

Beyond offering, in her writing, a macropolitical purview for a political philosophy of the radical negation of universalism, Ferreira da Silva has recently turned her attention to art and aesthetics, focusing specifically on what she terms “black feminist poethics”: the question of what role art and poethics can take within the monumental task of putting “an end to this world,” as she writes, alluding to Frantz Fanon and others, and of how to overcome the racialized, a concern that remains at the center of all of these endeavors. In pursuing this aim, she has collaborated with numerous curators and artists, such as Natasha Ginwala, Arjuna Neuman, Valentina Desideri, Rachel O’Reilly, Wendelien van Oldenborgh, Susanne M. Winterling, and Madiha Sikander, to name just a few. In light of the most recent issue of Texte zur Kunst, devoted to investigations of discrimination and racism in the field of contemporary art, Ferreira da Silva’s position is more relevant than ever. In particular, two central preoccupations of hers stand out: a rejection of the notion of critique and the formulation of a possible position beyond critique that upends the epistemic lineages of continental philosophies; and a contemporary “poethics” – an aesthetic-artistic practice aimed at disrupting modern political strategies of racial subjectivation. Professor Ferreira da Silva here illuminates these and other issues in conversation with the art historians/critics Kerstin Stakemeier and Susanne Leeb.

KS/SL: Starting off our inquiry into the philosophical, poethical, and artistic ramifications of your work, we want to ask: In your writing you problematize “racial critique” as something that does little more than diagnose devaluation. As far as we understand, your main opposition here is that racial critique remains entangled in the very universalist claims to truth that have characterized European modernity?

DFdS: When commenting on racial critique, I have in mind the kind of engagement modeled after Immanuel Kant’s formulation of critique, which he describes as systematic exposition and assessment of the conditions of possibility for X; that is, of its grounds and limits. Since Descartes, but definitely from Kant on, this specific analytical procedure has supported the claim that the rational mind (reduced to understanding) has access to the universal laws of nature because it shares their formal constitution.

This presupposition is also shared by the kind of racial critique that stops at the diagnostic of the devaluation of human populations constructed as non-white/non-European. At its worst, it presents this devaluation as an effect of beliefs or ideology and, as such, a deviation from the universal (moral) principles said to rule modern existence; at its best, it presents devaluation as constitutive of modern thought, but then moves on to an argument based on the idea of incompletion (that universality is yet to be realized) or misapprehension (that a particular has mistakenly been taken for the universal). In both cases, universality is retained as the proper descriptor of the modern ethical program.

In so far as contemporary critical engagements – whether the Frankfurt School’s, poststructuralism’s, or Marxism’s – are formal and borrow the format of the Kantian critique, they reproduce two movements that have been mapped out by Sylvia Wynter. The first one is what Wynter calls the secularization of rationality, and the second one the representation of the human through the workings of natural selection.

KS/SL: Could you give an example of these two movements?

DFdS: The first kind of racial critique I mention in my book Toward a Global Idea of Race is exemplified by the conception “racial discrimination.” This tool of the sociology of race relations, prevalent in the USA in the 1940s/50s and ’60s, captures an aspect of racial subjugation, which is in differential treatment, leading to the fact that the person and group discriminated against is barred from access to existing social benefits. Basically, the thesis behind the notion of racial discrimination is that it results from ignorance toward the racial subaltern conditions and a lack of enlightenment. As the theory goes, once the whole US population learned more about black folks’ lives and were educated in their society’s principles of universal freedom and equality, discrimination would disappear and universality both at the level of ideas and social functioning would be fully realized in the United States.

The concept of racism, in turn, exemplifies the second critique. The literature is extensive and varied and the task is complicated by the fact that racism is a concept that is elaborated in such sophisticated but distinct theories as Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, Robert Blauner’s Internal Colonialism, and Stuart Hall’s article Race, Articulation, and Societies Structured in Dominance. Racism’s origins are traced to a time in Europe before modernity, and its workings in the post-Enlightenment period usually seen as a result of a rallying by the state, capital, or interest groups (Oliver C. Cox, Michel Foucault, Aníbal Quijano).

To a lesser extent, the task is rendered difficult because of the more general tendency on the part of critical scholars to deploy racism as a descriptor of a social phenomenon that can be explained by the appropriate concept, such as class or ideology, for instance. Let me just say that to this day the best articulation of an analysis of racial subjugation – under the concept of racism – is Cedric Robinson’s Black Marxism, precisely because he refuses to explain racial subjugation away as an aid to class exploitation. Tellingly, while his analysis does locate the origin of the notion of race in pre-modern Europe, what his tracing of the workings of race in merchant and industrial capital provides is the delineation of what he calls the Black Radical Tradition. Much like Frantz Fanon’s, W. E. B. Dubois’s, Hortense Spillers’s, Saidiya Hartman’s, Robin Kelley’s, Nahum D. Chandler’s, and Fred Moten’s, Cedric Robinson’s thought exemplifies the very tradition he has mapped, with a kind of racial critique that does not reproduce the reduction mentioned above.

KS/SL: Where do you see their most fundamental differences to a reductionist approach?

DFdS: Foregrounding racial violence (and not racial discrimination or racial exclusion), all of these works expose – in different ways, of course – that the principles of universal equality and universal freedom are not the ultimate grounds for modern existence, but that, in fact, their circulation is contingent upon the deployment of racial difference and cultural difference in order to delineate the proper ethical domain of application of the universal principles under which colonial juridical forms of total violence prevail. Read, for instance, Fanon’s statement in the first chapter of The Wretched of the Earth (and I recommend the 1960s translation by Constance Farrington; the new translation is appalling) on the lack of an ideological moment of domination in the colonial context, since there, power is exercised through the weapons of the police and the army alone, without the words and ideas of the priest or the teacher.

Otobong Nkanga, "The Weight of Scars“, 2015.

Otobong Nkanga, "The Weight of Scars“, 2015.

KS/SL: How does art as critique fall prey to the limitations you just outlined in “racial critique”? Where – if anywhere – do you see alternative figures of aesthetic radicalization for contemporary art and aesthetic practices?

DFdS: I cannot answer the first part of this question because it does not work. It does not work because, as I tried to say in my previous answer, racial critique is just a variation of a type of engagement – that is, critique – as it was performed by Kant but also by Marx. In any event, because critique seems to be all we have, it obviously informs any work of art that explicitly attends to earlier and contemporary colonial or racial violence, global capital’s current modes of exploitation, expropriation, and extraction; to the work the state performs for global capital, to the workings of cis-heteropatriarchy. It doesn’t make sense to expect otherwise.

At the same time, I find that something else happens when criticality comes through creative work, when the imagination pursues the ends of critique. However, I find that to get it we may have to release the artwork from the grips of understanding (which is the mental faculty to which criticality is attributed) and allow it to follow the imagination – incidentally, my “we” refers to the artist, the critic, and the audience.

KS/SL: You attack specifically the idea of a “transparent subject” in Western modernity, but you also mention the critique of exactly this notion of the subject as constitutive for much continental philosophy throughout the 20th century. Michel Foucault or Monique Wittig, among many others, seem not unrelated to what Fred Moten formulated in a lecture on “Blackness and Nonperformance”: “The subject who was never here, cannot then disappear, it can only haunt.”

DFdS: Absolutely. Though I can locate what I am trying to do in a line of interrogation that passes through classical sociological and anthropological theorizing, as well as psychoanalysis and linguistics. I am much more interested in making sense of how the colonial (juridic and economic) context has done most of the haunting (of modern thought); it has been haunting every attempt at delineating the subject since the 16th century. For this is the sole reason why the subject could be articulated as such; that is, the subject could never “land,” and be there, for had he been “there” he would not be transparent (self-determined and self-knowing).

KS/SL: Departing but also differing from French feminist writings, you state that your critique of self-consciousness “privileges exteriority as a determining moment in signification.” Could you elaborate a bit more on the idea of exteriority?

DFdS: I quickly realized that my study of the notions of race and then nation had taken me beyond sociological and anthropological texts, where I thought I would find all that was necessary for the assembly of the concept in the 19th and 20th centuries. In those texts I read for gathering the US and Brazilian national discourses – published between 1875 and the late 1940s – many (if not most) times these two terms (race and nation) were employed as if they were interchangeable. I say as if because there was of course a difference in terms of the mode of address; that is, the nation usually appears in self-descriptions and calls to unified action, while race appeared in comparisons and attempts to make distinctions. In the case of the United States, the comparison was to England, of course, while, Brazil, on the other hand, was compared to the United States. Now, these two usages of these concepts at that moment, as we know, were collapsed in the German National Socialist discourse, in which the official (state) rendering of the nation was grounded in “purity.” The latter is supported by the notion of racial difference; that is, it does not primarily invoke a common past and a common future, but an exclusive territory and a unique body. This means that racial difference allows for the articulation of exteriority in a kind of text – which I call the national text – that requests the formal position of interiority. For this reason, in the effort to make sense of these modes of address and their effectivity, both when articulated separately and in tandem, I had to move “backward,” from the 19th-century science of man’s construction of the body as a biological concept to George Cuvier’s “science of life,” in order to find how the biological itself was constructed.

What I found, among other things, is that the exteriority that the 19th-century version of racial difference conveyed had been crucial to modern thought all along – because it supported its claim to capturing the truth of all things in the world. But it was only in the post-Enlightenment period that the manufacturing of a scientific formulation of racial difference was possible, which deployed this difference (exteriority) in the writings of man/the human, without violating the attribute (self-determination) that supports the claim that the latter occupies a unique position in the world.

KS/SL: In line with Fanon, and more recently, writers like Frank B. Wilderson III, you advocate for an “end to this world.” For someone like Wilderson, poetry as a mode of written language becomes a praxis for radically repositioning language, and for Saidiya Hartman, literature occupies a similar role. What is for you a medium of “ending,” or an artistic practice of “ending” distinct from, say, deconstruction?

DFdS: I think the key point here is whether the “ending,” which is the only reasonable thing one can ask of this racial capitalist world, must happen within or outside something, and whether this something that is retained is new or a part of this world.

For Fanon, man/the human is that which would be made anew after decolonization, and for Wilderson and Hartman, language and literature might play the same role; that is, of that "something."

I am very worried that we may not be able to stop the end of this world in which we exist; I am worried about the demolition of democratic structures that, though limited and perverse, provided at least an anchor to claims for social and global justice (from indigenous, migrant, LGBTI*, non-white populations everywhere) and could (at times) limit total violence; I am worried that insects and other species are becoming extinct, that rivers are drying up, that oceans are being suffocated by plastic, that fracking is destroying and threatening to contaminate large areas of underground water. This is a long list. However, I am invested – because I don’t see how we will be able to exist otherwise – in the end of the world as we know it.

This new world will have to be rebuilt and recuperated from the destruction caused by the extractive tools and mechanisms of global capital.

KS/SL: Where in this ending do you place art and philosophy?

DFdS: If power is everywhere, basically because it is (as) everything as Foucault claims, then the task of ending can only and necessarily happen within and against the given institutional and monetary frameworks of art, the university, and (dare I say) social media. In addition to the major revolts and rebellions we know from history books, ways of ending also include minor revolts, moments, gestures of refusal and refuge. That is, I don’t see why, like the university, contemporary art cannot also be a place for black study, in the terms proposed by Moten and Harney and practiced by black feminism.

KS/SL: In your text Toward a Black Feminist Poethics, you write that a black feminist poethical reading reflects on the artwork in relation to its arsenal of raciality but also considers how the artwork refuses to simply become an object of “empirical anthropology.” What exactly do you mean by “empirical anthropology”?

DFdS: There is no short answer. But let me say from the outset that my concern is with the artist, in particular; with how, much like academics (and I am including myself here), the work of artists of color is mediated by the anthropological notion of cultural difference. When compared to the early 20th century, a major difference is that on the one hand the focus is less on the forms, materials, etc. than on the artist herself, while on the other hand there is also an emphasis placed on extraction, dispossession, and oppression. This is very important politically. Unfortunately, however, the radical force of this double movement is always at risk of dissipating under the pressure of the market logic that prevails everywhere – a logic that requires a great deal, including simplification.

There are many consequences of this, including the recourse to the familiar tropes of representation, which are not only already anthropological but also end up confirming this basis. For instance, there have been a few occasions on which I experienced or witnessed others forced into the position of having to resist being addressed as a “native informant” (to use Spivak’s apt term), even when what they were articulating was an analysis of that very condition. That is, their critical response to being treated as “native informants” was taken as an “authentic” expression of their “native”/diverse experience. Incidentally, these occasions were not very different from those I found myself in as an academic. These are dangerous times. More immediately, I find there is a danger of missing the opportunity to take advantage of the radical openings that art can engender. It may seem a naïve statement. It is not. Back in the 1980s, ushered in by social movements and with the intellectual support of ideas deployed by a few European philosophers, academics in the social sciences and humanities announced the arrival of a postmodern moment, which would eventually transform academic and other institutional settings in North America, Australia, and New Zealand dramatically. As far as I know, the original notion of diversity and multiculturalism (articulated by Left or progressive North American thinkers) never quite made it to Europe, and only very recently has intersectionality entered the academic discourse. Of course, once these notions were appropriated and instrumentalized by the state, institutions, and corporations, it all went downhill. Still, some of us who made it through that period are still here, occupying spaces that would not have existed otherwise, now in the position of creating spaces that would not have been imaginable.

KS/SL: Do you have an idea of how to overcome the split between the global as universal and the singular artistic practices that are informed by social and political issue and practices, but which appear stripped of their complexity under the guise of the global as merely “culturally diverse”?

DFdS: Let’s try this. The global is not a universal, a formal entity; the global is a material context, a configuration, which includes juridical mechanisms of total violence and legal constraint, economic mechanisms (extractive, industrial, and financial) that facilitate expropriation and exploitation, and the symbolic tools of raciality that delimit the reach of the modern ethical program ruled by the notion of humanity and the protections it enjoys.

That being the case, we are still able to think of a singular artistic practice as exemplary of a given moment (a point in space-time) in this configuration. There is no ontological (or ethical or aesthetic) role for cultural difference here. To be sure, this is what I find in Otobong Nkanga’s, the Otolith Group’s, and Carlos Motta’s work, to name a few – that is, the refusal of cultural difference as the primary descriptor of that which they are imaging.

KS/SL: “Affectablity,” not opacity, is your counter term for "transparency."

With regard to the recent rise of right-wing movements, parties, and governments, you refer to the “loss” of the position of a transparent I : “In the presence of racial difference, European (white) subjects no longer occupy the place of the transparent I; they become affectable subjects, gazing at the horizon of death, the ones whose ideas and actions are always already determined by the presence of an inferior ‘other,’ a racial subaltern whose body and mind refer to other global regions.” It seems that under contemporary conditions, the “affectability” moves toward the establishment of ever-more subaltern positions. Is there a common ground (which does not mean a common reason) that could provide a starting point for breaking free from this continuous shift toward an increasingly affectable subject? We were thinking about Fanon and his idea of a better humanism, without having defined the foundation on which such a humanism could be based, or directed toward (if required)?

Carlos Motta, "Self-Portrait with Death #1", 1996/2018.

Carlos Motta, "Self-Portrait with Death #1", 1996/2018.

DFdS: This is the question, isn`t it? I mean, a possible formulation of the question is – and I think this is Sylvia Wynter’s – whether the human is the sine qua non of any ethical program that takes into account the conjugated (in the sense of chemistry) modes of subjugation that proliferate in the global present. In my thinking experiments I try to find ways of escaping dichotomies – such as interiority/exteriority, self-determination/affectability, temporality/spatiality, etc. – that have been so central to the delimiting of man’s/the human’s privilege.

Of course, it is not a question of thinking without exteriority, but of thinking, as I try to do with “fractal thinking,” about different scales simultaneously: cosmic, historic, organic, and quantic. For instance, while time (sequentiality) becomes irrelevant at the cosmic register, space doesn’t make sense at the quantic level because whatever happens at that level cannot be attributed to something that has extension. “Deep Implicancy” as “Radical Immanence” is for me a way of imaging the world without the idea of relations, which always presuppose that things are inherently separate or separable. What if thinking took a step back, found itself as a part of the whole mess of it all that is the plenum and became happy with providing momentary resolutions at each instance according to an intention mediated by the given context?

KS/SL: One last question. At the moment we are witnessing the return of an overtly racist politics, declaimed by the heads of purportedly democratic states. In one of your earlier texts, No-Bodies: Law, Raciality and Violence, you talk about the “replacement of the phantasmagoric ‘terrorist’ towards the ubiquitous ‘undocumented immigrant’ under the ‘security turn.’” You are referring to the military as implementing state violence against its own inhabitants, and you talk especially about the favelas in Rio de Janeiro, which as you state are called the Gaza Strip of Brazil by the locals. Then, of course, we have Orban, Trump, Bolsonaro et al. Is Bolosnaro just another, more radical player in this “security turn”?

DFdS: As you already noticed, Bolsonaro is merely another name in an already too-long list of heads of state who can be distinguished by their unabashed call for the deployment of total violence – whether of the state or of white nationalists – against distinct economically dispossessed populations of color. This is another moment in the security regime that we saw emerge after 9/11 – it has taken almost 20 years! In Toward a Global Idea of Race, I identify the two logics of racial subjugation from which we started: the logic of exclusion and the logic of obliteration. One of my arguments in the book is that both have operated throughout the 20th century and early 21st century, but the logic of obliteration, for many reasons, was given less attention, mostly because its function was replaced by the role of criminalization.

For most of the 20th century, cultural difference – according to the thesis that racial subjugation creates pathological social subjects – played a crucial role in explaining racial violence away as a response to criminal behavior on the part of the racial subaltern.

Well, we know all too well how it works; the scores of cases of police killings of unarmed black persons and the courts’ acquittal of them are very clear. Anyway, I think that what is happening in Brazil – which is what has been happening in the Philippines for a while now – is an intensification of the logic of obliteration, which is announced at the same time as the new administration brings about the end of the last remaining labor protections, as well as the elimination of constitutionally guaranteed land rights for indigenous and quilombo communities.

KS/SL: Is this Brazil now?

DFdS: Let me end with a few questions: What happens when the state’s primary role becomes not to protect the nation (the people) and their interests but to protect the corporation (their investors) and their interests? What kind of political counter discourses and practices are required to face this aspect of the “corporation-state” that is being put in place in Brazil, which can only be called the privatization (at the level of the individual citizen) of security through legal mechanisms that make the legal possession of guns accessible to a larger contingent of the population and expand the number of cases to which self-defense as a legal defense applies? What becomes of our charges of police brutality when the current Brazilian Minister of Justice releases a new security policy, which in addition to those conditions outlined above makes it the letter of law for police officers to shoot to kill on site/sight in their incursions into economically dispossessed urban spaces? And I have not mentioned the increased number of threats of, and actual violent actions taken against, indigenous peoples, LGBTI*, and environmental activists in Brazil in the past months. The very idea of social justice is in danger. The concept of social justice fits well within the nation state. But the security state is now firmly in place, with the sole mandate of protecting the economy; it is the “corporation-state,” whose primary roles for global capital are to create juridical instruments and structures and mechanisms that facilitate extraction, expropriation, and exploitation and protect the interest of corporations and their investors. What are we going to do?

Denise Ferreira da Silva is Director and Professor at the Institute for Gender, Race, Sexuality and Social Justice at the University of British Columbia.
Kerstin Stakemeier is a professor of Art Theory and Art Mediation at the Akademie der Bildenden Künste Nürnberg. She lives in Berlin.
Susanne Leeb is a professor of contemporary art at Leuphana University Lüneburg.
photo credits (in order of appearance): Carol Vidal, Christine Clinckx, Carlos Motta and P•P•O•W