112th Annual Conference - Riverside Convention Center, California
Friday, October 31 - Sunday, November 2, 2014

This page is about the 2014 conference. For 2015 conference info, go to PAMLA 2015.

"Unmeaning Jargon": Afro-pessimism, Art, and Post-Black Legibility

Ciarán Finlayson, Bard College at Simon's Rock

The “post-black” project purports to liberate young black artists from the constraints of an ethical regime of art.  This paper historically situates the emergence of this mode of thought in relation to discourses on black artists, probes its anti-black underside, and proposes new ways of seeing works of art in total darkness.


This paper is an exploration of the concept of Post-Blackness, as coined by curator Thelma Golden and artist Glenn Ligon, and as elaborated by art historian and cultural critic Darby English, through the lens of Afro-Pessimism, “a metacritique of the current discourse identified as ‘critical theory’,” that makes anti-blackness its central focus. For Golden, the term post-black “identified a generation of black artists who felt free to abandon or confront the label of ‘black artist,’ preferring to be understood as individuals with complex investigations of Blackness in their work.” I use Afropessimism explore the foundations of the post-black and link it to its political and historical context as an aesthetic component of the politics of multiracialism.  Jared Sexton, Saidiya Hartman, and Frank Wilderson are used to interrogate its position with regard to blackness, and to examine the state of art criticism in relation to the Black Artist, and Fred Moten is used to think through Black Aestheticss.   When the term entered circulation with the Studio Museum in Harlem’s Freestyle in 2003, it put forth a new history of black artists and charged the old history with being unable to bear the anti-identitarian dimensions of the artwork it purported to situate.  It holds the artwork that came before it to be passé, performing the uncritical work of racial uplift, endlessly demonstrating its devotion of blackness. The counter-devotional impulse in contemporary art ultimately displays its drive to distance itself from blackness-as-such.  It is in this tendency that I bring Jared Sexton’s work on the libidinal economy of anti-blackness, as well as his insights on the failures of coalition politics and multiracialism, to bear on the politics and aesthetics of the post-black.

Following this, I examine the ways in which the radically different conclusions arrived at by Post-Blackness and Afro-Pessimism are reached via diametrically opposed readings of Frantz Fanon’s “The Fact of Blackness.” Then, Hartman’s work on slavery and its afterlife is read in relation to issues of subjectivity and the legibility of African-American cultural products.  Her arguments are extended to the present-moment in order to illustrate historical continuities in the discourse on black art and to open up space for a more radical critique that makes use of post-black insights in the field of Visual Studies while eschewing its anti-Black means.  Fred Moten is used to show the how deep-seated these rhetorics are, to show that, rather than being a type of new black post-structural thought, it might be historically conceived of as another iteration of  “that terror-driven anesthetic disavowal of our terribleness,” (Moten, “Black Kant”)

This analysis hopes to prove that that Post-blackness—when it is finally admitted as leaving Blackness by the wayside, does not enable us to understand the position of the Black in the fields of politics, ontology, or aesthetics.

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