The following is the first of a two-part series.
The ban is a form of relation. But precisely what kind of relation is at issue here, when … the terms of the relation seem to exclude (and, at the same time, to include) each other? … The ban is … the simple positing of relation with the nonrelational. In this sense, the ban is identical with the limit form of relation. A critique of the ban will therefore necessarily have to put the very form of relation into question[.]
––Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (1998)
If the anthropological process [i.e., anthropogenesis] … is founded upon an articulated division between “human” and “animal,” then their [contact] … consist[s] in deactivating both notions.
… Two things are in contact only when they are united by a representational void. The point at which the human and the animal are in contact is interrupted by the anthropological process.
––Giorgio Agamben, Bidoun Interview (2013)
[In] form-of-life, bios and zoè… are in contact, which is to say they dwell in non-relation. … And it is this [ ] contact that the juridical order and politics seek by all means to capture and represent in a relation. … It will therefore be necessary to think politics as an intimacy unmediated by any articulation or representation[.]
––Giorgio Agamben, The Use of Bodies (2016)
Our extimate negation is affirmation inside out, a negativity of the infinitesimal. Unbearable, interminable, unfathomable: I might call this blackness as persistence, which suspends the differences between … life (and death) and non-life. … The slave is the threshold of legal non- personhood … where the damned coexist with this bitter earth [and] nonhuman animals[.]
––Jared Sexton, “On Black Negativity, or the Affirmation of Nothing” (2017)
Global Anthropogenesis as the World’s Transcendence/Rupture of the Earth
This essay presents “the black messianic” as a paradigm for thinking the non-relational politics of the captive flesh. I introduce and elaborate this theoretical paradigm in “Notes Toward (Inhabiting) the Black Messianic in Afro- pessimism’s Apocalyptic Thought.” “Nonrelationality,” Axelle Karera proposes, is “a modality of disruption intended to jam discursive syntax, ethical arrangements, and a discourse’s desire to secure its coherence by discarding the earth’s vulnerable inhabitants” (52).
For the world and its individuated human bodies to maintain the integrity of their politico-ontological capacity for relation, its constitution in anti- black gratuitous violence against the flesh of the earth must be foreclosed and thus structurally “forgotten.”
The black messianic aspires to “remember” the now time of the flesh as the ruptured remnant of necropolitical modernity that structurally precedes the political ontology of relation and its narratological temporality of progression. Accordingly, the black messianic attempts to theorize and inhabit a radical fidelity to the-position-of-the-unthought’s fundamental antagonism to the world and its transcendental logic of relation. And this fidelity to and in the ruptured flesh is a modality of contact—void of representation—that remains apposite to relationality.
Though thinking without regard for the world’s anti-black ground, Martin Heidegger usefully names the culmination of this process of forgetfulness “the age of the world picture,” where the earth becomes objectively present as a means of perpetual domination and extraction for the human as nature’s final end. Though theorists of the Anthropocene present themselves as opposed to this process, they often exemplify the logic of this metaphysical world-picture by approaching the problem through the ecological object of “the planetary”—a scientifically- oriented concept tacitly thought to transcend matters of race which thus symptomatically perpetuates the forgetfulness of anti-blackness in a paradigmatic way.
As geologist Kathyrn Yusoff observes in A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None , when “the Anthropocene proclaims the language of species-life – anthropos – through a universalist geologic commons [i.e., the planetary], it neatly erases histories of racism that were incubated through the regulatory structure of geologic [planetary] relations” (2). In contradistinction, Heidegger’s critique of the planetary qua world-picture attempts to philosophically posit the earth as that which always withdraws from the anthropological world’s horizon, preserving the question of existence despite its metaphysically rendered objective presence.
Developing and departing with this Heideggerian thought, I suggest that the colonizing machinations of anti-blackness have resulted in the world superseding the earth, where it no longer struggles with the earth as Heidegger conceived but now takes the form of the global. As Denise Ferreira da Silva programmatically states in Toward a Global Idea of Race : “In tracing the analytics of raciality, I identify the productivity of the racial and how it is tied to the emergence of an ontological context—globality—that fuses particular bodily traits, social configurations, and global regions, in which human difference is reproduced as irreducible and unsublatable” (xix).
In modern Christian politico-theological terms, globality is the “manifest destiny” of the world’s spiritual transcendence of the earth and its wretched/damned flesh, where human individuation and the capacity for relationality found and police the transcendental grammar for participating in this global “city on a hill.” Willie James Jennings poignantly describes this process in The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race ]):
Europeans enacted racial agency [in slavery and colonization] as a theologically articulated way of understanding their bodies in relation to new spaces and new peoples and to their new power over those spaces and peoples. Before this agency would yield the “idea of race,” “the scientific concept of race,” the “social principle of race,” or even a fully formed “racial optic” on the world, it was a theological form—an inverted, distorted vision of creation that reduced theological anthropology to commodified bodies. In this inversion, whiteness [i.e., globality] replaced the earth as the signifier of identities. (emphasis mine; 58)
“Another way to understand this,” Yusoff writes (though not responding to Jennings), “would be to understand Blackness as a historically constituted and intentionally enacted deformation … that presses an inhuman categorization and the inhuman earth into intimacy” (xii). As such, human globality’s supersession and deformation of the (flesh of the) earth exemplifies the logic of exception.
As Agamben shows, exception constitutes the law’s relation to (non-)life by engendering an exclusive/inclusive bond that prohibits its own dissolution—a ban-logic that anti- blackness throws into sharp relief. Since relation thus comes into being a posteriori through the law’s logic of exception, Agamben posits the notion of contact as that which precedes the violent imposition of relation. Contact describes the non-relational “touching” of entities in a void of representation.
Perhaps the paradigmatic image of contact in modernity is the ungendered captive flesh in the hold of the ship. It is with this understanding that I read Afro-pessimism’s demand to “stay in the hold”, as Wilderson says. (xi). I argue that radical black feminisms and Afro-pessimism thus theorize the flesh as a site of contact void of representation. And I attempt to elaborate this theorization with the black messianic as a paradigm of positional attunement to and inhabitation of “the flesh of the earth” in radical fidelity to its demand for “the landless inhabitation of selfless existence” (16).
But why the black messianic animal? As Agamben draws attention to in The Open: Man and Animal —his principal study of the anthropogenesis, or the becoming-human of the human—Heidegger’s meditations on world and earth converge with his thoughts on the human and the animal. “The relation between man and animal” in Heidegger’s thought, Agamben writes, “seems to evoke that intimate strife (Streit) between world and earth[.] … In both cases, there seems to be present a single paradigm which presses together an openness and a closedness” (71).
Further, Agamben goes on to observe in his reading of Heidegger’s corpus that the “ontological paradigm of truth as the conflict between concealedness and unconcealedness is, in Heidegger, immediately and originarily a political paradigm” (73). Accordingly, he continues, “the originary political conflict between unconcealedness and concealedness will be, at the same time and to the same degree, that between the humanity and the animality of man” (74).
Developing and departing from this politico-ontological schema—human/world/openness and animal/earth/closedness—I argue that Heidegger and Agamben are both blind to the fact that the constitution of globality with the invention of the unsublatable black transforms the conflictual relation between human/world and animal/earth into an antagonism that ruptures this anthropogenic machine. The black messianic is thus necessarily implicated with the animal.
The singularity of this rupture could be theoretically observed in the unprecedented transformation of anthropogenesis. The paradigmatic form blackness takes in the world is the anti-human slave. As such, the black is not simply continuous with the slave of antiquity, who ontologically remains human, according to Aristotle (Politics 8 (book I, chapter 5). Rather, the modern slave is racialized livestock.
While anthropogenesis once maintained its zone of indistinction between human and animal through the paradigm of the slave of antiquity, its caesura-threshold of indistinction in modernity is necropolitically collapsed, reified, and forgotten in racial-chattel-slavery. As Fanon observes in The Wretched of the Earth, the black “is reduced to the state of an animal” (7). Constituted as racialized livestock in modern slavery, the black is ontologically not human and thus socially dead in the world, with no possible passage into humanity and its relational capacity. As a result, I posit that the caesura-threshold of the anthropogenic machine—where human and animal are in indistinguishable contact—lies foreclosed in blackness qua racial-chattel-slavery.
However, while global anthropogenesis categorically suspends the black from the human—collapsing the slave-threshold of the anthropogenic machine with its animal-pole—the black messianic embraces its animality in a gesture toward, as Agamben puts it, the messianic “suspension of the [anthropological] suspension.” Such a paradigmatic gesture, I argue, remembers the messianic contact at the caesura of anthropogenesis by demanding we “risk ourselves in this emptiness” that is the black messianic animal (The Open, 92).
One could consider this black messianic contact by adding the language of animality to David Marriott’s lucid definition of Afro-pessimism in Whither Fanon?: Afro-pessimism does “not proclaim a new theory of blackness, but seek[s] to perform it [ ] in a way that embraces its dispossession [and animality]: put more clearly, what makes afro-pessimism so singular a movement is its awareness that blackness can never be distinct from the dispossession [and animality] that possesses it at the level of being” (329).
The black messianic animal thus offers a paradigm of suspended anthropogenesis that dwells in contact with the (flesh of the) earth’s landless inhabitation of selfless existence—which remains apposite to human globality’s transcendental relationality and its planetary object.
Anti-Black Supersessionism and Redemption in the Relational Eco-Theology of “Human Animality”
As a means of elaborating this notion of the black messianic animal and its immanent contact with the (flesh of the) earth, I will deconstruct Eric Daryl Meyer’s Inner Animalities: Theology and the End of the Human in order to expose the symptomatic forgetfulness of anti-blackness in contemporary considerations of animality and ecology. My argument is that the only way to dwell with animality in the wake of racial-chattel-slavery is through contact with the captive flesh. Part of what is at stake in our differences is attention to the decisive role of supersessionism in the singular rupture that yields global anthropogenesis—and with it the black messianic animal’s demand to render globality inoperative in refusing humanity. Further, by attending to Meyer’s attempt to provide an account of human redemption inclusive of animality, I can show how the black messianic animal’s contact with the (flesh of the) earth is necessarily subtracted from redemption’s teleology of relational reconciliation.
As a Christian theologian, Meyer’s project is an immanent critique Christianity’s “anthropological exceptionalism” and what he calls the “problem of human animality”(2). His central problematic is how Christian theologians simultaneously contradistinguish human animality from “proper humanity” while holding “them together in accounts of creation, redemption, and eschatological transformation.”
Meyer revisits canonical Christian accounts of each theological concept to offer deconstructive readings that exhibit how proper humanity is always already contaminated with human animality—the latter referring to, for example, the digestive process and sexual functions. Accordingly, he attempts to exhibit potential counter- readings that refuse the Christian canon’s investment in human exceptionalism to instead suggest Christian theology’s capacity to affirm human animality—and to do so at the very moments the canon disavows it. As Meyer writes:
I want to demonstrate that anthropological exceptionalism is unnecessary for Christian theology. In other words, I want to resolve the problem of human animality, not with a newer and better strategy for subordinating and managing our common creatureliness, but by offering a theological account of human life centered the aspects of creaturely life that human beings share with nonhuman neighbors, that is, an account that abandons the categorical distinction between human beings and all other animals. (5)
Meyer’s project is thus a retrieval of both Christianity and the human in the name of “our” common creatureliness that would enable an adequate form of ecological thought. Ironically though, Meyer insists on human animality throughout. He claims to do this so as not to homogenize animality. While it may be correct to have such a concern, in addressing it in this manner, he effectively reifies the human as a natural entity, presuming it sufficient to attribute “proper humanity” to the function of a mere ideological apparatus (à la Althusser), rather than as a product of fundamental ontology and its attendant positionality.
This move neglects the truth at the core of modern anthropogenesis—which is ultimately molded by Christian theology—where blackness functions as the paradigmatic anti-human in its ontological indistinction from animality. As Zakiyyah Jackson observes in “Losing Manhood: Animality and Plasticity in the (Neo)Slave Narrative”:
Anti-black racialization exists within a biopolitical sphere that exceeds the master- slave relation and comprises also trans-species relations. [The] human-animal binarism is, in turn, shaped by the historical development of slavery. The slave’s plasticity neither conforms to a predetermined human exceptionalism nor maintains fidelity to the general principle of human privilege with respect to the animal. (124)
To thus attempt a deconstruction of human exceptionalism from the animal without attending to the unthought position of the black slave is to ultimately preserve the global anthropogenic machine. And to try to attend to the matter of animality within a theological framework—especially that of Christianity—without preserving the grammar of anti-blackness necessitates addressing the problem of supersessionism.
However, despite Meyer’s focus on Christian theology’s “anthropological exceptionalism,” he neglects supersessionism’s decisive role in the formation of not only modern Christianity but Christianity as such—which enables him to hold onto notions of redemption and eschatology that are absolutely foreclosed to blackness. A more generous reading may grant that his emphasis on Christian anthropology’s logic of exception tacitly accounts for the logic of supersessionism.
Yet a critique of anthropological exceptionalism can nonetheless retain the integrity of Christian theology—whereas a critique of supersessionism puts the entire (modern) Christian edifice into question. Though it is outside of this essay’s scope to fully unpack the following claim, I contend that (modern) Christianity as such is essentially supersessionist.6 That is, Christianity comes to distinguish itself as an independent worldly identity—inventing “religion” as its very mode distinction/exception—at the proverbial “moment” it ceases to be a Jewish messianic movement driven by an immanent destitution of the law and the imminent anticipation of the end of the world.
Christianity’s invention of itself as the one true identity/religion fundamentally betrays its messianic origin through a logic that comes to furnish the (modern) human as such. And this logic reaches its apotheosis with the creation of the black as that absolutely irredeemable entity that can, at best, only serve as an instrument for “universal” salvation in transcendental relationality.
It is thus not surprising that Meyer maintains a logic relationality in his attempt to provide an affirmative theological account of human animality as a model for ecology. In other words, he effectively transmutes the Christian human’s ontological qualities—the capacity for relationality and thus redemptive salvation—to animality and nature as such despite his intentions to do otherwise. And this movement is ultimately conditioned by his paradigmatic neglect of the position of the unthought.
Andrew Santana Kaplan is a graduate student in Comparative Literature at Emory University.