by Daniel Davison-Vecchione
Social theorists are increasingly showing interest in the speculative—in the application of the imagination to the future. This hearkens back to H. G. Wells’ view that “the creation of Utopias—and their exhaustive criticism—is the proper and distinctive method of sociology”. Like Wells, recent sociological thinkers believe that the kind of imagination on display in speculative literature valuably contributes to understanding and thinking critically about society. Ruth Levitas explicitly advocates a utopian approach to sociology: a provisional, reflexive, and dialogic method for exploring alternative possible futures that she terms the Imaginary Reconstitution of Society. Similarly, Matt Dawson points to how social theorists like Émile Durkheim have long used the tools of sociology to critique and offer alternative visions of society.
As these examples illustrate, this renewed social-theoretical interest in the speculative tends much more towards utopia than dystopia. Unfortunately, this has meant an almost complete neglect of how dystopia can contribute to understanding and thinking critically about society. This neglect partly stems from how under-theorised dystopia is compared to utopia. Here I make the case for considering dystopia and social theory alongside each other. In short, doing so helps illuminate (i) the kind of theorising about society that dystopian authors implicitly engage in and (ii) the kind of imagination implicitly at work in many classic texts of social theory.
The characteristics and politics of dystopia
A simple, initial definition of a dystopia might be an imaginative portrayal of a (very) bad place, as opposed to a utopia, which is an imaginative portrayal of a (very) good place. In Kingsley Amis’ oft-quoted words, dystopias draw “new maps of hell”. Many leading theorists, including Krishan Kumar and Fredric Jameson, tend to conflate dystopia with anti-utopia. It is true that numerous dystopias, such as Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon (1940), concern the horrifying consequences of attempted utopian schemes. However, not all dystopias are straightforwardly classifiable as anti-utopias. Take Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985). The leaders of the patriarchal, theocratic Republic of Gilead present their regime as a utopia, which one might consider a kind of counter-utopia to what they see as the naïve and materialistic ideals of contemporary America, and at least some of these leaders sincerely believe in the set of values that the regime realises in part. One might therefore conclude that the novel is a warning that utopian thinking inevitably leads to and justifies oppressive practices. However, I would argue that The Handmaid’s Tale is not a critique of utopia as such, but rather of how actors with vested interests frame the actualisation of their ideologies as the attainment of utopia to discourage critical thinking. This reading is supported by how, for many members of Gilead’s ruling elite, the presentation of their society as a utopia is little more than self-serving rhetoric they use to brainwash the women they subjugate. Other dystopian works contain anti-utopian elements but subordinate these to the exploration of other themes. For instance, a subplot of Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Book of Joan (2017) concerns a celebrity-turned-dictator’s dream of a technologically “improved” humanity, but resource wars, global warming, and other factors had already made the novel’s setting decidedly dystopian before this utopian scheme arose. Finally, there are major examples of dystopian literature, such as Octavia Butler’s Parable series (1993–1998), that depart from the anti-utopian template altogether.
Tom Moylan has begun to rectify the dystopia/anti-utopia conflation via the concept of the critical dystopia. In his words, critical-dystopian texts “linger in the terrors of the present even as they exemplify what is needed to transform it”. Put simply, critical dystopias are dystopias that retain a utopian impulse. Although this helps us understand many significant dystopian works, such as Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Gold Coast (1988) and Marge Piercey’s He, She and It (1991), the idea of the critical dystopia runs into its own problems. By labelling as “critical” only those dystopias that retain a utopian impulse, one makes it seem as if dystopia does not help us to understand and evaluate society in its own right—dystopia’s critical import becomes, so to speak, parasitic on utopia.
To illustrate how this sells dystopia short, consider the extrapolative dystopia; that is, the kind of dystopia that identifies a current trend or process in society and then imaginatively extrapolates “to some conceivable, though not inevitable, future state of affairs”. Many of Atwood’s novels fall into this subcategory. In her own words, The Year of the Flood (2009) is “fiction, but the general tendencies and many of the details in it are alarmingly close to fact”, and MaddAddam (2013) “does not include any technologies or biobeings that do not already exist, are not under construction, or are not possible in theory”. These texts, which together with Oryx & Crake (2003) form Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, consider possible, wide-reaching changes that are rooted in present-day social and technological developments and raise pressing questions as to environmental degradation, reproduction and fertility, and the boundaries of humanity. Similarly, Butler constructs the dystopian future in her Parable series by extrapolating from familiar tendencies within American society, including racism, neoliberal capitalism, and religious fundamentalism.
My point is not simply that these extrapolative dystopias are cautionary tales. It is that one cannot reduce their critical effect to either the negation or the retention of a utopian impulse. They identify certain empirically observable tendencies that have serious socio-political implications in the present and are liable to worsen over time. As such, they are critiques of present-day social phenomena and (more or less) plausible projections of how a given society might develop. The implicit message is that we can avoid the bad future in question through intervention in the present. This is how dystopia can translate into real-world political action. Taking perhaps the most famous twentieth century dystopia, in Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) George Orwell was not simply satirising Stalin’s USSR or Hitler’s Germany. He was also considering the nature and prospects of the worldwide developments he associated with totalitarianism, including centralised but undemocratic economies that establish caste systems, “emotional nihilism”, and a total skepticism towards objective truth “because all the facts have to fit in with the words and prophecies of some infallible fuehrer”. In Orwell’s words, “That, so far as I can see, is the direction in which we are actually moving, though, of course, the process is reversible”.
In the last couple of decades, dystopian texts have frequently sought to make similar points about global warming, digital surveillance, and the “new authoritarianisms”. One can certainly argue that taking dystopia too seriously as a means of critically understanding society risks sliding into a catastrophist outlook that emphasises averting worse outcomes rather than producing better ones. However, one should bear in mind that dystopia does not (and should not) aim to provide a comprehensive political program; rather, it provides a speculative frame one can use to consider current developments, thereby yielding intellectual resources for envisaging positive alternatives.
The social theory in dystopia and the dystopia in social theory
This brings us to the more direct affinities between dystopia and social theory. To begin with, protagonists in dystopian texts like Orwell’s Winston Smith, Atwood’s Offred, and Butler’s Lauren Olamina tend to be much more reflective and three-dimensional than their classical utopian counterparts. This is because, unlike the “tourist” style of narration common to utopias, dystopias tend to be narrated from the perspective of an inhabitant of the imagined society; someone whose subjectivity has been shaped by that society’s historical conditions, structural arrangements, and forms of life. As Sean Seeger and I have argued, this makes dystopia a potent exercise in what the American sociologist C. Wright Mills termed “the sociological imagination”; that is, the quality of mind that “enables us to grasp [social] history and [personal] biography and the relations between the two”, thereby allowing us to see the intersection between “the personal troubles of milieu” and “the public issues of social structure”.
Since dystopian world-building takes seriously (i) how a future society might historically arise from existing, empirically observable tendencies, (ii) how that society might “hang together” in terms of its political, cultural, and economic arrangements, and (iii) how these historical and structural contexts might shape the inner lives and personal experiences of that society’s inhabitants, one can say that such world-building implicitly engages in social theorising. Conversely, the empirically observable tendencies from which dystopias commonly extrapolate, and the ethical, political, and anthropological-characterological questions dystopias frequently pose, are central to many classic texts of social theory.
For instance, Max Weber saw his intellectual project as a cultural science concerned with “the fate of our times”. He extrapolated from such related macrosocial tendencies as rationalisation and bureaucratisation to envisage modern humanity encased and constituted by a “shell as hard as steel” (“stahlhartes Gehäuse”) and feared that “no summer bloom lies ahead of us, but rather a polar night of icy darkness”. This would already place Weber’s social theory close to dystopia, but the resemblance becomes uncanny when one also considers Weber’s central interest in “the economic and social conditions of existence [Daseinsbendingungen]” that shape “the quality of human beings” and his related emphasis on the need to preserve human excellence and to avoid giving way to mere “satisfaction”. This is a dystopian theme par excellence, as seen from such classics in the genre as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1951), which gives additional significance to the famous, Nietzsche-inspired moment at the end of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904-1905). Here Weber wonders who might “live in that shell in the future”, including the ossified and self-important “last men”; those “specialists without spirit, hedonists without a heart” who “imagine they have attained a stage of humankind [Menschentum] never before reached”. Like a good extrapolative-dystopian author, Weber provides a conceptually rich account of social phenomena by reflecting on what is currently happening and speculating about its further development and implications. It therefore seems that the dystopian imagination has always been at play within the sociological canon.
While the extent of the overlap between dystopia and social theory is yet to be fully determined, much of this overlap no doubt stems from how central social subjectivity is to both endeavours. It is true that, in their representations of societies, dystopian authors as writers of fiction are not subject to the same demands of accuracy as social theorists. Nevertheless, the critical effect of much dystopian literature relies heavily on empirical connections with the world inhabited by the reader and, conversely, social theory often evaluates by speculating about the possible consequences of current tendencies. As such, one cannot consistently maintain a straightforward separation between the two enterprises. I am therefore confident that this nascent, interdisciplinary area of study will be productive and insightful for both social scientists and scholars of speculative literature.
My thanks to Jade Hinchliffe, Sean Seeger, Sacha Marten, and Richard Elliott for their helpful comments on an early draft of this essay.
 H. G. Wells, “The So-Called Science of Sociology,” Sociological Papers 3 (1907): 357–369, 167.
 Ruth Levitas, Utopia as Method: The Imaginary Reconstitution of Society (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).
 Matt Dawson, Social Theory for Alternative Societies (London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2016).
 Zygmunt Bauman is a partial exception. See Zygmunt Bauman, Modernity and the Holocaust (Cambridge: Polity, 2000 ), 137; Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Modernity (Cambridge: Polity, 2000), 26, 53–64; Zygmunt Bauman, Retrotopia (Cambridge: Polity, 2017), 1–12.
 This essay raises and builds on points Sean Seeger and I have made in our ongoing collaborative research on speculative literature and social theory. See Sean Seeger and Daniel Davison-Vecchione, “Dystopian Literature and the Sociological Imagination,” Thesis Eleven 155, no. 1 (2019): 45-63.
 Kingsley Amis, New Maps of Hell: A Survey of Science Fiction (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1960).
 Krishan Kumar, Utopia and Anti-Utopia in Modern Times (London: Blackwell, 1987), viii; Fredric Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future (London: Verso, 2005), 198.
 Tom Moylan, Scraps of the Untainted Sky: Science Fiction, Utopia, Dystopia (New York: Routledge), 198-199.
 Seeger and Davison-Vecchione, “Dystopian Literature and the Sociological Imagination,” 55.
 Quoted in Gregory Claeys, Dystopia: A Natural History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), 482.
 Quoted in Kumar, Utopia and Anti-Utopia in Modern Times, 292-93.
 This is complicated by the “critical utopias” that arose in the 1960s and 70s, which emphasise subjects and political agency much more than their classical antecedents.
 Seeger and Davison-Vecchione, “Dystopian Literature and the Sociological Imagination,” 50; C. Wright Mills, The Sociological Imagination (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000 ), 6, 8.
 See, e.g., Lawrence A. Scaff, Fleeing the Iron Cage: Culture, Politics, and Modernity in the Thought of Max Weber (Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 1991); Wilhelm Hennis, Max Weber’s Central Question (Newbury: Threshold Press, 2000).
 Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, trs. Peter Baehr and Gordon C. Wells (London: Penguin Books, 2002), 121; Max Weber, “Politics as a Vocation,” in From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, eds. H.H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills (Abingdon: Routledge, 2005) 77-128, 128. “Iron cage” is Talcott Parsons’ mistranslation of “stahlhartes Gehäuse”.
 Max Weber, “The National State and Economic Policy” (1895), quoted in Scaff, Fleeing the Iron Cage, 30.
 Weber, Protestant Ethic, 121.
by Marius S. Ostrowski
In May 2021, the British broadcaster ITV launched a new advertising campaign to showcase the range of content available on its streaming platform ITV Hub. In a series of shorts, stars from the worlds of drama and reality TV go head-to-head in a number of outlandish confrontations, with one or the other (or neither) ultimately coming out on top. One short sees Jason Watkins (Des, McDonald & Dodds) try to slip Kem Cetinay (Love Island) a glass of poison, only for Kem to outwit him by switching glasses when Jason’s back is turned. Another has Katherine Kelly (Innocent, Liar) making herself a gin and tonic, opening a cupboard in her kitchen to shush a bound and gagged Pete Wicks (The Only Way is Essex). A third features Ferne McCann (I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here!, The Only Way is Essex) rudely interrupting Richie Campbell (Grace, Liar) in the middle of a crucial phonecall by raining bullets down on him from a helicopter gunship. And the last, most recent advert shows Olivia Attwood (Love Island) and Bradley Dack (Blackburn Rovers) distracted mid-walk by an adorable dog, only to have a hefty skip dropped on them by Anna Friel (Butterfly, Marcella).
The message of all these unlikely pairings is clear. In this age of binge-watching, lockdowns, and working from home, ITV is stepping up to the plate to give us, the viewers, the very best in premium, popular, top-rated televisual content to satisfy every conceivable taste. Against the decades-long rise of subscription video-on-demand streaming, one of the old guard of terrestrial television is going on the offensive. Netflix? Prime? Disney+? Doesn’t have the range. Get you a platform that can do both. (BAFTA-winning drama and Ofcom-baiting reality, that is.) More a half-baked fighting retreat than an all-out assault? Think again; ITV is “stopping at nothing in the fight for your attention”. Can ITV really keep pace with the bottomless pockets of the new media behemoths? Of course it can. Even without a wealth of resources you can still have a wealth of choice. The eye-catching tagline for all this: “More drama and reality than ever before.”
In this titanic struggle between drama and reality, the central irony—or, perhaps, its guilty secret—is how often the two sides of this dichotomy fundamentally converge. The drama in question only very rarely crosses the threshold into true fantasy, whether imagined more as lurid science-fiction or mind-bending Lovecraftian horror; meanwhile, reality is several stages removed from anything as deadening or banal as actual raw footage from live CCTV. Instead, the dramas that ITV touts as its most successful examples of the genre pride themselves on their “grittiness”, “believability”, and even “realism”. At the same time, the “biggest” reality shows are transparently “scripted” and reliant on “set-ups” and other manipulations by interventionist producers, and the highest accolade their participants can bestow on one another is how “unreal” they look. Both converge from different sides on an equilibrium point of simulated, real-world-dramatising “hyperreality”; and as we watch, we are unconsciously invited to ask where drama ends and where reality begins.
In our consumption of drama and reality, we are likewise invited to “pick our own” hyperreality from the plethora of options on offer. The sheer quantity of content available across all these platforms is little short of overwhelming, and staying up-to-date with all of it is a more-than-full-time occupation. Small wonder, then, that we commonly experience this “wealth of choice” as decision “fatigue” or “paralysis”, and spend almost as much if not often more time scrolling through the seemingly infinite menus on different streaming services than we do actually watching what they show us. But the choices we make are more significant than they might at first appear. The hyperrealities we choose determine how we frame and understand both the world “out there” within and beyond our everyday experiences and the stories we invent to describe its horizons of alternative possibility. They decide what we think is (or is not) actually the case, what should (or should not) be the case, what does (and does not) matter. Through our choice of hyperreality, we determine how we wish both reality and drama to be (and not to be).
Given the quantity of content available, the choice we make is also close to zero-sum. As the “fight for our attention” trumpeted by ITV implies, our attention (our viewing time and energy, our emotional and cognitive engagement) is a scarce resource. Even for the most dedicated bingers, picking one or even a few of these hyperrealities to immerse ourselves in sooner or later comes at the cost of being able to choose (at least most of) the others. We have to choose whether our preferred hyperreality is dominated by “glamorous singles” acting out all the toxic and benign microdynamics of heterosexual attraction, or the murky world of “bent coppers” and the rugged band of flawed-but-honourable detectives out to expose them; whether it smothers us in parasols and petticoats, and all the mannered paraphernalia of period nostalgia, or draws us into the hidden intricacies of a desperately-endangered natural world. In short, we have to choose what it is about the world that we want to see.
* * *
We face the same overload of reality and drama, and the same forced choice, when we engage with the more direct mediatised processes that provide us with information about the world around us. Through physical, online, and social media, we are met with a ceaseless barrage of new, drip-fed, self-contained events and phenomena, delivered to us as bitesize nuggets of “content”. Before, we had the screaming capitalised headlines and one-sentence paragraphs of the tabloid press. Now, we also have Tweets (and briefly Fleets), Instagram stories and reels, and TikTok videos generated by “new media” organisations, “influencers” and “blue ticks”, and a vast swarm of anonymous or pseudonymous “content providers”. All in all, the number of sources—and the quantity of output from each of these sources—has risen well beyond our capacity to retain an even remotely synoptic view of “everything that is going on”.
Of course, it is by now a well-rehearsed trope that these bits of “news” and “novelty” content leave no room for nuance, granularity, and subtlety in capturing the complexities of these events and phenomena. But what is less-noticed are the challenges they create for our capacity to make meaningful sense of them at all from our own (individual or shared) ideological stances. Normally, we gather up all the relevant informational cues we can, then—as John Zaller puts it—“marry” them to our pre-existing ideological values and attitudes, and form what Walter Lippmann calls a “picture inside our heads” about the world, which acts as the basis for all our subsequent thought and action. But the more bits of information we are forced to make sense of, and the faster we have to make sense of them “in live time” as we receive them—before we can be sure about what information is available instead or overall—the more our task becomes one of information-management. We are preoccupied with finding ways to get a handle on information and compressing it so that our resulting mental pictures of the world are still tolerably coherent—and so that our chosen hyperreality still “works” without too many glitches in the Matrix.
These processes of information-management are far from ideologically neutral. As consumers of information, our attention is not just passive, there to be “fought over” and “grabbed”; rather, we actively direct it on the basis of our own internalised norms and assumptions. We are hardly indiscriminately all-seeing eyes; we are omnivorous, certainly, but like the Eye of Sauron our voracious absorption of information depends heavily on where exactly our gaze is turned. In this context, what is it that ideology does to enable us to deal with information overload? What tools does it offer us to form a viable representation of the world, to help us choose our hyperreality?
* * *
One such tool is the iterative process of curating the “recommended-for-you” information that appears as the topmost entries in our search results, home pages, and timelines. The cues we receive are blisteringly “hot”, to use Marshall McLuhan’s term; they are rhetorically and aesthetically marked or tagged—“high-spotted” in Edward Bernays’ phrase—to elicit certain emotional and cognitive reactions, and steer us towards particular “pro–con” attitudes and value-judgments. They “fight for our attention”, clamouring loudly to be the first to be fed through our ideological lenses; and they soon exhaust our capacity (our time, energy, engagement) to scroll ever on and absorb new information. To stave off paralysis, we pick—we have to pick—which bits of information we will inflate, and which we want to downplay. In so doing, we implicitly inflate and downplay the ideological frames and understandings attached to them in “high-spotted” form. Then, of course, the media platform or search engine algorithm remembers and learns our choice, and over time gradually takes the need to make it off our hands, quietly presenting us with only the information (and ideological representations) we “would” (or “should”) have picked out. “Siri, show me what I want to see.” “Alexa, play what I want to hear.” No surprise, then, that the difference in user experience between searching something in our usual browser or a different one can feel like paring away layers of saturation and selective distortion.
The fragmentary nature of how we receive information also changes how we express our reaction to it. The ideologically-exaggerated construction of informational cues is designed to provoke instant, “tit-for-tat” responses. At the same time, the promise of “going viral” creates an algorithmic incentive to move first and “move mad” by immediately hitting back in the same medium with a response that is at least as ideologically exaggerated and provocative as the original cue if not more. Gone are the usual cognitive buffers designed to optimise “low-information” reasoning and decision-making. Instead, we are pushed towards the shortest of heuristic shortcuts, the paths of least intellectual resistance, into an upward—and outward (polarising)—spiral of “snap” judgments. The “hot take” becomes the predominant way for us to incorporate the latest information into our ideological pictures of the world; any longer and more detailed engagement with this information is created by literally attaching “takes” to each other in sequence (most obviously via Twitter “threads”). As this practice of instantaneous reaction becomes increasingly prominent and entrenched, our pre-existing mental pictures are steadily overwritten by a worldview wholly constituted as a mosaic of takes: disjointed, simplistic, foundationless, and subjective.
As our ideological outlook becomes ever more piecemeal, we turn with growing urgency to the tools and structures of narrative to bring it some semblance of overarching unity. Every day, we consult our curated timelines and the cues it presents to us to discover “the discourse” du jour—the primary topic of interest on which our and others’ collective attention is to focus, and on which we are to have a take. Everything about “the discourse” is thoroughly narrativised: it has protagonists (“the OG Islanders”) and a supporting cast (“new arrivals”, “the Casa Amor girls”), who are slotted neatly into the roles of heroes (Abi, Kaz, Liberty) or villains (Faye, Jake, Lillie); it undergoes plot development (the Islanders’ “journeys”), with story and character arcs (Toby’s exponential emotional growth), twists (the departure of “Jiberty”) and resolutions (the pre-Final affirmations of “Chloby”, “Feddy”, “Kyler”, and “Milliam”). We overcome both the sheer randomness of events as they appear to us, and the pro–con simplicity of our judgments about them, by reimagining each one as a scene in a contemporary (im)morality play—a play, moreover, in which we are partisan participants as much as observers (e.g., by voting contestants off or adding to their online representations). How far this process relies on hermetically self-contained, self-referential certainty becomes clear from the discomfort we feel when objects of “the discourse” break out of this narrative mould. The howls of outrage that the mysterious figure of “H” in Line of Duty turned out not to be a “Big Bad” in the style of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but instead a floating signifier for institutional corruption, shows how conditioned we have become to crave not only decontestation but substantial closure.
The final element in our ideological arsenal that helps us cope with the white heat of the cues we receive is our ability to look past them and focus on the contextual and metatextual penumbra that surrounds them. To make sure we are reading our fragmentary information about the world “correctly”, we search for additional clues that take (some or all of) the onus of curating it, coming up with a take about it, and shaping it into a narrative off our hands. This explains, for instance, the phenomenon where audiences experience Love Island episodes on two levels simultaneously, first as viewers and second as readers of the metacommentary in their respective messenger group chats, and on “Love Island Twitter”, “Love Island TikTok”, and “Love Island Instagram”. In extreme cases, we outsource our ideological labour almost entirely to these clues, at the expense of engaging with the information itself, as it were, on its own terms. “Decoding” the messages the information contains then becomes less about knowing the right “code” and more about being sufficiently familiar with who is responsible for “encoding” it, as well as when, where, and how they are doing so. Rosie Holt has aptly parodied this tendency, with her character vacillating between describing a tweet as nice or nasty (“nicety”) and serious (“delete this”) or a joke (“lol”), incapable of making up her mind until she has read what other people have said about it.
* * *
Together, these elements create a kind of modus vivendi strategy, which we can use to cobble together something approaching a consistent ideological representation of what is going on in the world. But its highly in-the-moment, “choose-your-own-adventure” approach threatens to give us a very emaciated, flattened understanding of what ideology is and does for us. Specifically, it is a dangerously reductionist conception of what ideology has to offer for our inevitable project of choosing a hyperreal mental picture that navigates usefully between (overwhelming, nonsensical) reality and (fanciful, abstruse) drama. If a modus vivendi is all that ideology becomes, we end up condemned to seeing the world solely in terms of competing “mid-range” narratives, without any overarching “metanarratives” to weave them together. These mid-range narratives telescope down the full potential extent of comparisons across space and trajectories over time into the limits of what we can comprehend within the horizons of our immediate neighbourhood and our recent memory. What we see of the world becomes limited to a litany of Game of Thrones-style fragmentary perspectives, more-or-less “(un)reliable” narrations from myriad different people’s angles—which may coincide or contradict each other, but which come no closer to offering a complete or comprehensive account of “what is going on”.
The tragic irony is that the apotheosis of this information-management style of ideological modus vivendi is taking place against a backdrop of a reality that is itself taking on ever more dramatic dimensions on an ever-grander scale. Literal catastrophes such as climate change, pandemics, or countries’ political and humanitarian collapse raise the spectral prospect of wholesale societal disintegration, and show glimpses of a world that is simultaneously more fantastical and more raw than what we encounter as reality day-to-day. Individual-level, “bit-by-bit” interpretation is wholly unequipped to handle that degree of overwhelmingness in the reality around us. Curating the information we receive, giving our takes on it, crafting it into moralistic narratives, and interpreting its supporting cues is a viable way to offer an escape (or escapism) from the stochastic confusion of the “petty” reality of our everyday experience—to “leaven the mundanity of your day”, as Bill Bailey puts it in Tinselworm. But it falls woefully short when what we have to face is a reality that operates at a level well beyond our immediate personal experience, which is “sublimely” irreducible to anything as parochial as individual perspective. How unprepared the ideological modus vivendi calibrated to the mediatisation of information today leaves us is shown starkly by the comment of an anonymous Twitter user, who wondered whether we will experience climate change “as a series of short, apocalyptic videos until eventually it’s your phone that’s recording”.
If it proves unable to handle such “grand” reality, ideology threatens to become what the Marxist tradition has accused it of being all along: namely, an analgesic to numb us out of the need to take reality on its own ineluctable terms. That, ultimately, is what Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were trying to provide through their accounts of historical materialism and scientific socialism: an articulation of a narrative capable of addressing, and as far as possible capturing, the sheer scale and complexity of reality beyond the everyday. We do not have to take all our cues from Marxism—even if, as often as not, “every little helps”. But we do have to inject a healthy dose of grand narrative and metanarrative back into the ideologies we use to represent the world around us, even if only to know where we stand among the tides of social change from which the “newsworthy” events and phenomena we encounter ultimately stem. The trends driving the reality we want to narrate are simultaneously global and local, homogenised and atomised, universal and individuated. We cannot focus on one at the expense of the other. By itself, neither the “Olympian” view of sweeping undifferentiated monological macronarratives (Hegelian Spirit, Whig progress, or Spenglerian decline) nor the “ant’s-eye” view of disconnected micronarratives (of the kind that contemporary mediatisation is encouraging us to focus on) will do. The only ideologies worth their salt will be those that bridge the two.
How, then, should ideology respond to the late-modern pressures that are generating “more drama and reality than ever before”? Certainly, it needs to recognise the extent to which these are opposite pulls it has to satisfy simultaneously: no ideological narrative can afford to lose the contact with “gritty” reality that makes it empirically plausible, nor the “production values” of drama that make it affectively compelling. At the same time, it has to acknowledge that the hyperreality it creates and chooses for us is never fully immune to risk. Dramatic “scripting” imposes on reality a meaningfulness and direction that the sheer chaotic randomness of “pure” reality may always eventually belie. Meanwhile, the slavish drive to “accurately” simulate reality may ultimately sap our orientation and motivation in engaging with the world around us of any dramatic momentum. The only way to minimise these risks is to “think big”, and restore to ideology the ambition of “grand” and “meta” perspective, to reflect the maximum scale at which we can interpret both what (plausibly) is and what (potentially) is to be done.
 Walter Lippmann, Public Opinion (Blacksburg, VA: Wilder Publications, Inc., 2010 ), 21–2; John R. Zaller, The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 51.
 Edward Bernays, Propaganda (Brooklyn, NY: Ig Publishing, 2005 ), 38; Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media (New York, NY: McGraw–Hill, 1964), 22ff.
by Sean Seeger
What is the relationship of queer theory to utopianism?
Given their mutual interest in challenging dominant norms, values, and institutions, it may seem obvious that queer theory would share affinities with utopian thought. Determining what precisely these affinities consist in is, however, a less straightforward matter. In order to understand them, we will need to consider the twin careers of queer theory and utopianism over the last few decades.
It is a striking fact that the flourishing of the first wave of queer theory in the 1980s and 90s coincided with the demise of utopianism within wider culture. Theorists from David Harvey to Fredric Jameson have explained this drying up of utopian energy in terms of the turn toward post-Fordism followed by the rise of neoliberalism. Others, such as Ruth Levitas and Slavoj Žižek, have emphasised the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 as key factors in the widely proclaimed ‘death’ of utopia. Meanwhile, in their analyses of the cultural politics of the period, Franco Berardi and Mark Fisher each write of the widespread sense of ‘the cancellation of the future’ as it became increasingly hard to envisage plausible alternatives to capitalism during these decades.
As James Ingram notes, this anti-utopian sense of stagnation meant that critics of the status quo found it necessary to seize on ‘ever thinner, weaker, and vaguer’ utopian moments as the possibility of tangible, real-world change receded from view. Utopianism thus tended to become highly abstract and emptied of content: rather than anticipating a better society or the liberation of specific human energies, the focus of much utopian discourse increasingly became the bare possibility of change itself – the intimation that things might, somehow, someday be otherwise.
A case in point is that of Jameson’s Archaeologies of the Future, where it is suggested that, in light of the failed utopian projects of the twentieth century, ‘the slogan of anti-anti-Utopianism might well offer the best working strategy’ for those on the left today. On this view, rearguard action against the dystopian tendencies of late capitalism, combined with fleeting glimpses of utopian hope found scattered amidst works of literature and popular culture, may be as close to utopia as we are able to come.
This anti-utopian turn was arguably foreshadowed in certain respects by the work of Michel Foucault, who, in response to an interviewer’s question about why he had not sketched a utopia, notoriously replied that ‘to imagine another system is to extend our participation in the present system.’
In their book, The Last Man Takes LSD: Foucault and the End of Revolution, Mitchell Dean and Daniel Zamora show that this outlook was the result of a growing sense of exhaustion with system building, utopian dreaming, and grand visions of the future in the latter half of the twentieth century. In place of revolution, they argue, Foucault proposed a turn toward the self and a focus on micro-political as opposed to systemic change. Foucault’s late masterwork, The History of Sexuality, published in several volumes between 1976 and 1984, is representative of this inward turn. It was also to be one of the main sources of inspiration for what was to become known as queer theory.
In this context, it is worth noting that a related criticism to that levelled by Ingram at the diminished utopianism of the 80s and 90s has also been made of first-wave queer theory. A good example of this is Rosemary Hennessy’s book Profit and Pleasure, in which Hennessy criticises what she sees as the tendency of theorists like Judith Butler and Eve Sedgwick to separate gender and sexuality from capitalism and class. Such an approach is problematic, firstly, because it dehistoricises gender and sexuality by untethering them from the development of capitalism, and, secondly, because it dematerialises them by emphasising their cultural construction while neglecting socioeconomic factors such as the changing nature of wage labour or the origins of the modern family.
Hennessy is one of a number of critics who see queer theory’s way of engaging gender and sexuality as restrictive and as leading to difficulties in situating queer identity and politics in relation to broader social developments. Although they do not generally frame these limitations in terms of a failure of the utopian imagination, a parallel may be drawn between these writers’ critique of queer theory, on the one hand, and critiques of the turn toward micro-politics during the 80s and 90s by commentators like Dean and Zamora, on the other.
Just as utopianism dwindled to little more than a wisp of possibility during the neoliberal era, so first-wave queer theory represents for some of its critics a retreat from large-scale social critique in favour of a preoccupation with individual self-fashioning, leaving it susceptible to commodification and the dilution of its radical potential.
These are serious charges. There are nevertheless a number of replies that queer theorists might make in response to them.
A first would start by noting that, as queer theorists themselves, critics like Hennessy are contributors to the enterprise they find fault with. Insofar as their own class-based analysis of gender and sexuality is successful (as it arguably is), they thereby demonstrate that queer theory is able to encompass economic considerations. Although this does not constitute a defence of earlier theorists, it does help to demonstrate the flexibility of queer theory and the possibility of broadening its scope beyond the categories of gender and sexuality. Queer of color critique, which addresses the intersection of gender, sexuality, and race, has likewise contested some of queer theory’s guiding assumptions and highlighted further blindspots from a position within queer theory itself.
A second reply would be to point out that some queer theorists have been concerned with capitalism and class since the inception of the field in the early 1980s. To take one prominent example, John D’Emilio was producing groundbreaking analysis of socioeconomic factors in the formation of queer subjectivity in articles such as ‘Capitalism and Gay Identity’ as early as 1983. In the following decade, Lisa Duggan analysed the depoliticisation of gay identity in articles like ‘The New Homonormativity: The Sexual Politics of Neoliberalism.’
The main contention of D’Emilio’s ‘Capitalism and Gay Identity’ is that ‘only when individuals began to make their living through wage labor, instead of as parts of an interdependent family unit, was it possible for homosexual desire to coalesce into a personal identity – an identity based on the ability to remain outside the heterosexual family and to construct a personal life based on attraction to one’s own sex.’ This, in turn, ‘made possible the formation of urban communities of lesbians and gay men and, more recently, of a politics based on a sexual identity.’
D’Emilio’s account of the origin of gay identity is not deterministic: he does not claim that an alteration in economic life caused gay identity to come into existence. Rather, his argument is that until specific historical conditions arose there was no ‘social space’ for such an identity to occupy. D’Emilio shows that while same-sex desire is present in the historical record prior to the nineteenth century, homosexuality as an identity – as a way of being and of relating to others – is not. As even this brief sketch hopefully illustrates, D’Emilio’s work provides a prima facie reason to think that queer theory need not neglect economic considerations.
A third reply to critics of queer theory’s limited political scope would be to reconsider some of its foundational texts. Reflecting on her classic study Gender Trouble a decade on from its original publication, Butler commented that ‘the aim of the text was to open up the field of possibility for gender without dictating which kinds of possibilities ought to be realized.’ The possibilities in question have to do with ways of performing gender, and the scope for subversion of established gender roles and styles. It is true, as Hennessy argues, that both Gender Trouble and its sequel, Bodies that Matter, focus almost exclusively on gender and sexuality and that neither offers anything like a systematic analysis of their relationship to capitalism or class. Whether this constitutes as decisive a shortcoming as Hennessy believes is less clear, however.
‘One might wonder,’ Butler writes, ‘what use “opening up possibilities” finally is, but no one who has understood what it is to live in the social world as what is “impossible,” illegible, unrealizable, unreal, and illegitimate is likely to pose that question.’ This is a suggestive observation that may point to a way of reappraising not only Gender Trouble but Butler’s work more generally. While taking the invalidation of certain ways of performing gender as its ostensible focus, the remark registers a concern with illegibility and illegitimacy that has continued to inform Butler’s work.
In her books Precarious Life and Notes toward a Performative Theory of Assembly, Butler incorporates economic marginalisation into her analysis and provides an insightful account of the condition of precarity, which she defines as differential exposure to economic insecurity, violence, and forced migration. In light of these and other works, it has become possible to identify a persisting preoccupation on Butler’s part with the ways in which social value and legitimacy are assigned to or withheld from different groups, whether on the basis of gender, sexuality, race, class, immigration status, or some combination of these.
The examples of D’Emilio and Butler serve to illustrate the social and political reach of queer theory. Recent years, however, have seen the rise of a more overtly utopian style of queer theory. Work in this vein explicitly repudiates the anti-utopianism of the neoliberal era and is influenced as much by traditions of radical queer activism and historical events such as the Compton’s Cafeteria riot and Stonewall as by Foucault’s History of Sexuality.
Published in 2009, José Esteban Muñoz’s Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity, an important example of queer of color critique, articulates a hopeful, future-oriented alternative to what Muñoz sees as the resignation and political timidity of queer culture since the turn of the millennium.
Distinguishing between LGBT pragmatism and queer utopianism, Muñoz argues that in focusing on objectives like gay marriage or securing the right of trans people to serve in the military, the queer community has lost sight of the utopian aspirations that inspired activists of the 1960s and 70s. For Muñoz, the aim of queer politics ought to be nothing less than the achievement of a world no longer structured by heteronormativity or white supremacy, however remote such a goal may appear from our present dystopian vantage. Even if Cruising Utopia does not offer the kind of concrete detail required to realise such a project, it is clearly a long way from the micro-political tinkering associated with queer theory by some of its critics.
A very different but no less utopian form of queer theory is found in The Xenofeminist Manifesto, originally published online in 2015 and authored by a collective of six authors working under the name Laboria Cuboniks. Characterised by Emily Jones as ‘a feminist ethics for the technomaterial world’, xenofeminism is a queer technofeminism committed to trans liberation and gender abolition, by which is meant the construction of ‘a society where traits currently assembled under the rubric of gender, no longer furnish a grid for the asymmetric operation of power.’
The ethos of the manifesto is well captured by its subtitle: ‘a politics for alienation’. Those seeking radical change must embrace ‘alienation’ through the recognition that nothing is natural. While acknowledging the cultural construction of gender, the manifesto insists that materiality and biology must likewise not be taken as givens: they can be intervened in through surgery, hormone therapies, and alterations to the built environment. As experiments in free and open-source medicine on the part of feminists, gender hacktivists, and trans DIY-HRT forums demonstrate, technologies so far captured by capital may yet be repurposed as part of an anti-capitalist, anti-patriarchal project in which ‘women, queers, and the gender non-conforming play an unparalleled role.’
Written in a self-consciously hyperbolic style and blending promethean rhetoric with quasi-science fictional projections of post-capitalist emancipation, The Xenofeminist Manifesto is as exhilarating as it is wildly ambitious.
What, then, is the relationship of queer theory to utopianism? Based on our brief consideration of some of queer theory’s more utopian elements, it is reasonable to draw two provisional conclusions: that queer theory may have more in common with utopian thought than is often assumed, and that there are signs of a more explicit utopian turn taking place within queer theory today. It remains to be seen how far the latter will inform future queer politics.
My thanks to Daniel Davison-Vecchione for his helpful feedback on an earlier draft of this essay.
 See David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007); and Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1991).
 See Ruth Levitas, The Concept of Utopia, 2nd edn. (Oxfordshire: Peter Lang, 2011), pp. ix–xv; and Slavoj Žižek, In Defense of Lost Causes (London: Verso, 2008).
 See Franco Berardi, After the Future, eds. Gary Genosko and Nicholas Thoburn (Edinburgh and Oakland, Baltimore: AK Press, 2011); and Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism (London: Zero, 2009).
 James D. Ingram, Introduction, Political Uses of Utopia: New Marxist, Anarchist, and Radical Democratic Perspectives, eds. S. D. Chrostowska and James D. Ingram (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016), p. xvi.
 Fredric Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions (London: Verso, 2007), xvi.
 Michel Foucault, ‘Revolutionary Action: Until Now,’ in Language, Counter-Memory and Practice, ed. Donald F. Bouchard (New York: Cornell University Press, 1977), p. 230.
 Mitchell Dean and Daniel Zamora, The Last Man Takes LSD: Foucault and the End of Revolution (London: Verso, 2021).
 Rosemary Hennessy, Profit and Pleasure: Sexual Identities in Late Capitalism, 2nd edn. (New York: Routledge, 2017).
 Related issues have been raised about queer theory by James Penney in After Queer Theory: The Limits of Sexual Politics (London: Pluto, 2014), which makes the case for the need for a critical return to Marxism on the part of queer theorists.
 John D’Emilio, ‘Capitalism and Gay Identity’, in The Gay and Lesbian Studies Reader, eds. Michele Aina, Barale, David M. Halperin, and Henry Abelove (New York: Routledge, 1993), pp. 467–476.
 Lisa Duggan, ‘The New Homonormativity: The Sexual Politics of Neoliberalism,’ in Materializing Democracy: Toward a Revitalized Cultural Politics, eds. Dana D. Nelson and Russ Castronovo (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2002), pp. 175–194.
 D’Emilio, p. 470.
 Judith Butler, Preface, Gender Trouble, 2nd edn. (New York: Routledge, 1999), pp. vii–viii.
 Butler, p. viii.
 Judith Butler, Precarious Life (London: Verso, 2004) and Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015).
 Emily Jones, ‘Feminist Technologies and Post-Capitalism: Defining and Reflecting Upon Xenofeminism,’ Feminist Review, Vol. 123, Issue. 1 (2019), p. 127.
 Laboria Cuboniks, The Xenofeminist Manifesto (London: Verso, 2018), p. 55.
 Cuboniks, p. 17.
by Elizabeth Jordie Davies
“I can’t say too emphatically that we stand at a terminal point in history, at a moment of supreme world crisis. Destruction lies ahead unless things are changed. And things must be changed. And changed by the people.”
-- Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
I approach Afropessimism with a question: what here can move us forward? I understand Afropessimism as an intellectual project, a description of the state of the world as anti-Black. Afropessimism asserts that Black people exist outside of the category Human and are fundamentally excluded from social and civil life. I also understand Afropessimism as having potential as a political project, one that presents both opportunities and challenges. In this way, I depart from Michael Dawson, who, in his essay “Against Afropessimism,” warns against Afropessimism’s anti-political stance.
Afropessimism makes an important political intervention by accounting for the slings and arrows of anti-Blackness, the indignities suffered by Black people and the right-ness of Black anger and despair. As such, slavery and anti-Blackness provide foundational understandings of the past and present by validating the Black experience and by explicating the relationship of Black people to the rest of the world. Even though Afropessimism itself locates Black people outside of politics, it prompts those of us who are interested in a politics after Afropessimism to consider what we might or can do in the face of a world that again and again refuses Blackness.
While I stress the political potential of Afropessimism, I also agree with and extend a few of Dawson’s criticisms of Afropessimism. I am particularly interested in the political stakes of centering Black death as the lens through which to view the world. Afropessimism’s singular lens is useful when naming the enduring problems of white supremacy and anti-Blackness; however, I worry that it limits the scope of political possibilities that can be pursued by linking anti-Blackness with the struggles of other marginalised people and by embracing the fights of multiply-marginalised Black people.
Thus, I conclude that a Black politics and Black life must be pursued beyond Afropessimism. Black culture and Black recognition provide the foundation that links Black people together beyond conditions of oppression, forms the basis of solidarity politics, and prompts us to imagine otherwise.
I. A Black Experience
Afropessimism offers a paradigm through which Black anger and despair can be fully recognised given the terrain of anti-Blackness, which is a result of the position of Black as “slave.” Wilderson’s Afropessimism follows and extends Hartman who locates Black people in the “after-life of slavery—skewed life chances, limited access to health and education, premature death, incarceration, and impoverishment. Yet for Wilderson, the Black condition is not solely an “after-life” but a static condition of slavery and Black exploitation in relation to the rest of the world. Blackness is the “other” upon which the world turns and operates.
In reading Wilderson’s descriptions of his life experiences of racism, both micro and macro aggressions, it seemed clear to me something was being articulated that was familiar to all Black people, something worth acknowledging for the truth it reveals and the foundational understanding it provides: the Black experience of being unacceptable to white people, being outside of social life, and unworthy of recognition.
Wilderson recounts conversations with his childhood friend’s white mother, wherein she asks the “unasked question,” first through his friend, then directly “How do you feel, being a Negro?” This exchange echoes Du Bois’ Souls of Black Folk, wherein he ponders, “How does it feel to be a problem?” Wilderson’s personal experiences, though in some ways limiting the scope of his argument due to his positionality as a middle-class man, provide entry into the experience of Blackness as Black autobiographical writing has done throughout history. The barrage of attacks on Wilderson from white neighbors and colleagues echo a common theme throughout Black biography: an outsider looking in, an invisible man, or a woman hiding in the attic.
Wilderson asserts that the senselessness and inhumanity of racism and anti-Blackness can only make sense if to be Black is to not be human but to be in the category of slave. He emphasises that the history and presence of anti-Black violence is insurmountable in the political arena. He expounds on this in conversation with Linette Park for The Black Scholar, wherein he declares that there is no need for some “telos” or “destination” for Black rage. Instead, Wilderson suggests we should “pick the scab and let Black people do the work of combustion” without the “mandate of uplift” or the “mandate of civil rights.” In this way, Wilderson says, we have a “mandate of true acknowledgement of what snaps in the mind from the death of Black desire, and we’re saying that’s okay. Because, nothing can happen in this world without Black people being at the core!”
I am open to the political implications of what it means to be neither in nor of the world, positioned outside of social and civic life, and inhabiting an outsider status from where one could let go of the present and strive for a different future. Following Jasmine Syedullah, I recognise that pessimism, in particular, can serve as a “prophetic defense against the future white supremacy makes all but inescapable...despair works to expose the limits of political agency, incorporation, representation, and progress.” Afropessimism, then, suggests that to reach for some common ground with a white supremacist system is and always has been futile, given the relentless and ongoing reality of Black death since slavery. This axiom allows Black people to step away and slip through an open door to something else.
Furthermore, I agree with Sexton when he writes “Slavery must be theorised maximally if its abolition is to reach the proper level.” Sexton goes on, “The singularity of slavery is the prerequisite of its universality.” I therefore agree that the emphasis on anti-Black slavery is a useful anchor, pulling the conversation to the crux of the matter. Only in a system defined by anti-Black slavery can the logics of racism, the carceral state, colorism, capitalism, persistent inequalities in wealth and status, and diasporic divisions of Black people across space and time make sense.
There is power in naming the reality of the present in the realm of a post-slavery continuum that demonstrates how what is remains linked to what was. If Black people remain in an undignified state of being, that helps explain ongoing dissatisfaction, anger, and uprisings. Black activists’ extension of the “abolitionist” fight from slavery to mass incarceration, for example, demonstrates the discursive power and mobilising potential of placing modern struggles within the long trajectory of anti-Blackness.
II. The Limits of Afropessimism
Despite the discursive power of slavery and anti-Blackness as the defining backdrop of the modern world, this framing has important limits. Dawson asserts that Afropessimism, in its singular focus on new world slavery, obscures the genocide of Indigenous people and flattens the experience of Black people. I argue that we must be able to reasonably acknowledge and centre the experiences of Black people vis-à-vis slavery, while also linking this struggle with other experiences of colonisation and marginality. Two things can happen at once. Attention to the struggles of others does not weaken or shrink the gravity of Black struggle.
Without acknowledging the struggle of other marginalised groups, Afropessimism, as Dawson writes, is theoretically limited by not acknowledging the context in which slavery occurs. Afropessimism loses the fuller story of white supremacy and ignores that the anti-Black capitalist world was made possible through centuries of genocide and displacement of Indigenous people. Without this story, we cannot comprehend Black peoples’ stakes in fights against capitalism, colonisation, and the fight for environmental justice. The lack of acknowledgement of the colonisation of Indigenous people at the outset of modernity withdraws Black struggle into itself and refuses to see the areas upon which collaboration, mutual interests, and common enemies can build a pathway forward.
In addition, Afropessimism needlessly limits the scope of its argument focusing solely on the trials of anti-Blackness. However, anti-Blackness, and sexism, and classism, and homophobia, and (etc)... are all defining and intersecting struggles in Black life. I do not think that the answer is mere recognition of these struggles, wherein simple acknowledgement or “representation” is the reliable answer. Rather, we should name these systems of domination as part and parcel of anti-Black practices because Black people bear the brunt of all of these “-isms” in distinct ways. The Black experience is expansive and we cannot ignore the variations in conditions that make for better or worse life chances.
I am concerned that Afropessimism forecloses questions of solidarity, refusing the possibility that Black people can ever benefit from true cross-racial solidarity, as well as refusing the power of Black led social movements.
Wilderson writes that “left-wing counter-hegemonic alliances” are “an essential terror” and that “coalitions and social movements—even radical social movements like the Prison Abolition Movement—bound up in the solicitation of hegemony, so as to fortify and extend the interlocutory life of civil society...ultimately accommodate only the satiable demands and legible conflicts of civil society’s junior partners (such as immigrants, White women, the working class), but foreclose upon the insatiable demands and illegible antagonisms of Blacks” (emphasis Wilderson’s).
There is something to be learned and understood from the assertion that everyone is anti-Black, and that there (perhaps) can be no pure solidarity. I accept that. When Wilderson recounts his Palestinian friend’s anti-Blackness, or when his father was called a n*gger by a Native American man, I do not excuse these as one-off experiences but as examples of the embeddedness of anti-Blackness. There is no good reason to ignore this fact and I am not here to suggest that we pursue cross-racial solidarity at the expense of Black safety and well-being, or that we should prioritise coalitional politics only, or before first building up Black political bonds.
But avoiding opportunities for solidarity leaves a lot on the table. Acting in solidarity connects multiple struggles against white supremacy and builds power, rendering solidarity a useful tool that can be used to accomplish political goals and better the terrain, even in an anti-Black world. And better is not perfect, but it is better.
It is better for Black people to be out of prison than inside of it, it is better for Black people to be able to vote than to not be able to vote, even as anti-Blackness says those voting rights are and will always be under attack. It is better for Black people to enter class struggle in solidarity with other workers. The fight for a free Palestine has always been and always will be intertwined with the Black freedom struggle. We cannot slide into a realm of futility that diminishes the value of waging political fights for subjugated people the world over.
This is not to say that progress is a given, or that there are no fights that Black people should refuse. It is not evident to me that the oft quoted Martin Luther King Jr. aphorism “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice” is accurate. I do not think that Black people should be in coalitions with people who deny their humanity. Black people will have to fight for every modicum of progress and will have to use discernment about who fights alongside. Guidance for these fights, though, can be found in a rich Black radical tradition. Furthermore, Black culture and Black community can serve as grounding and mobilising forces beyond the realities of anti-Blackness.
IV. Black Life Matters
“The archival of black life is more than counting the dead, the maimed, and the dispossessed. Rather, it holds a possibility of deep remembrance of the freedom dreams of our ancestors, those who walked before us, and walk beside us, and those yet to come. Freedom dreams don’t live in real time. They live in epiphenomenal time—that black (w)hole of our existence in which the past, present and future are coiled around each other like that tiny black curl at the nape of your neck your grandmama used to call a “kitchen.”
-- Zenzele Isoke, “Black Ethnography, Black (Female)Aesthetics: Thinking/ Writing/ Saying/ Sounding Black Political Life”
While Afropessimism offers an intellectual path away from this world, it does not fully revel in the pleasurable cultural experiences of being Black. This includes the continuum of common experiences, language, and culture through which Black people are able to recognise, know and acknowledge each other. Thus, the pathway forward after Afropessimism must be sought elsewhere.
Sexton argues that “Nothing in afro-pessimism suggests that there is no black (social) life, only that black life is not social life in the universe formed by the codes of state and civil society, of citizen and subject, of nation and culture, of people and place, of history and heritage, of all the things that colonial society has in common with the colonised, of all that capital has in common with labour—the modern world system. Black life is not lived in the world that the world lives in, but it is lived underground, in outer space.”
It may be the case that Black social life is lived outside of civil society. But even so, Black social life and culture deserves a central place in the condition of Blackness as it has always been there, moving Black people through and forward. New and old Black feminisms and Black queer politics provide rich, grounding traditions of expansive togetherness, inclusion and safety for all Black people, even as these were and are located outside of mainstream feminist and queer movements. Though the world is predicated on Black death, Black people can be revived through Black collectivity. As Kevin Quashie writes, “Antiblackness is part of blackness but not all of how or what blackness is. Antiblackness is total in the world but not total in the black world.”
Black art and literature, Black music, call and response traditions, the Black church: there is so much we give for and to us that gives cause and reason to carry on, to not despair, and to fight at least for the space where we can be us, even if that space is outside of the social world. Traditions seen as errant and often unrecognised for their artistic contributions mean something to Black people and demonstrate that Black existence is more than just a condition of slavery. We should revel in who Black people are in spite of anti-Blackness, not to ignore its persistence but to honour those who came before.
While we must take care not to, as Hartman warns, “fill in the void” with political projects that are ultimately integrationist, nor reclaim struggles against anti-Black violence as some demonstration of otherworldly strength or endurance. I think, however, there are ways to revel in Blackness that exists outside of what are typically seen as justice-bent goals or characteristics, like integration or endurance. Black people can, in fact, revel in their outsider status, as Hartman demonstrates in her book Wayward Lives, and build a “transformational politics from below,” as Cohen discusses in her essay, “Deviance as Resistance.”
In this essay, I find important political potential in grounding anti-Blackness as the defining condition of the world, as it validates and speaks to the Black experience. However, I also agree with Dawson’s critique that Afropessimism does not adequately recognise the struggles of other marginalised groups and homogenises the Black experience.
I find important limitations in the theory of Afropessimism as it forecloses possibilities for linked solidarity struggles by minimising the struggles of other marginalised groups outside of Blackness. Even as the outsider status of Blackness provides a generative space to pursue a different world and even revel in Black life, Afropessimism alone does not fully appreciate Black cultural traditions.
We may hold Afropessimism as a truism describing the state of the world; but I see Black radicalism and Black feminism as the imaginative, world-building politics that provide a path forward. Author and womanist Alice Walker, speaking at an Anti-Nuke Rally at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco in 1982, offers food for thought in this regard:
“Life is better than death, I believe, if only because it is less boring, and because it has fresh peaches in it. In any case, Earth is my home—though for centuries white people have tried to convince me I have no right to exist, except in the dirtiest, darkest corners of the globe.
So let me tell you: I intend to protect my home. Praying—not a curse—only the hope that my courage will not fail my love. But if by some miracle, and all our struggle, the earth is spared, only justice to every living thing (and everything is alive) will save humankind.
And we are not saved yet.
Only justice can stop a curse.”
 Ellison, R. 1995. Invisible man. New York: Vintage International.
 Hartman, Saidiya. 2007. Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route. New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux: 6.
 Wilderson, Frank. 2020. Afropessimism. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation: 24-27.
 Du Bois, W.E.B. (1903, 1994). The Souls of Black Folk. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, Inc. 1.
 Park, Linette. 2020. “Afropessimism and Futures of …: A Conversation with Frank Wilderson.” The Black Scholar 50(3): 40.
 Gordon, Lewis R., Annie Menzel, George Shulman, and Jasmine Syedullah. 2018. “Afro Pessimism.” Contemporary Political Theory 17(1): 128.
 Sexton, Jared. 2011. “The Social Life of Social Death: On Afropessimism and Black Optimism.” InTensions Journal. Issue 5: Fall/Winter. Toronto: York University: 33.
 Ibid, 33.
 Or, perhaps Afropessimists would say, slower or faster deaths.
 Wilderson, Frank. 2020. 222-223.
 Ibid,12-13 & 44.
 Isoke, Zenzele. 2018. “Black Ethnography, Black (Female) Aesthetics: Thinking/ Writing/ Saying/ Sounding Black Political Life. Theory and Event, Vol 21(1): 149.
 Sexton, Jared, 2011. 28.
 Quashie, Kevin. 2021. Black Aliveness, Or a Poetics of Being. Durham; London: Duke University Press: 5.
 Hartman, Saidiya V. and Frank B. Wilderson. 2003. “The Position of the Unthought.” Qui Parle 13(2): 186.
 Cohen, Cathy J. 2004. “Deviance As Resistance: A New Research Agenda for the Study of Black Politics.” Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race 1(1): 42.
 Walker, Alice. 1983. “Only Justice Can Stop a Curse,” in Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology. Barbara Smith, ed. New York: Kitchen Table—Women of Color Press.
by Marcus Lee
Michael Dawson’s critique of Afropessimism centers primarily on the striking inattention to historical detail in the writings of Frank Wilderson and Jared Sexton. Both writers pose slavery and the present as so deeply interwoven that claims of historical continuity require neither explanation nor qualification. Wilderson writes, “The changes that begin to occur after the Civil War and up through the Civil Rights Movement, Black Power, and the American election of a Black president are merely changes in the weather. Despite the fact that the sadism [i.e. spectacular, gratuitous violence] is no longer played out in the open as it was in 1840, nothing essential has changed.” Sexton likewise suggests that the structural relations constitutive of slavery remain pervasive and are unyielding, “regardless of variance or permutation in [their] operation across the better part of a millennium.” According to Dawson, these sweeping claims, as well as many of the other theoretical maneuvers in Wilderson and Sexton’s writings, work to obscure rather than clarify the terms of antiblackness and result in a general loss of analytic purchase on the current moment.
I appreciate Dawson’s historically informed critique. Wilderson and Sexton often substitute rhetorical flourish for the opportunity to parse historical detail or substantiate claims. In reading Wilderson’s memoir, Afropessimism, however, I am struck by his unique mode of narrative theorising. Whereas Dawson bases his critique in empirical precision and historical specificity, Wilderson revels in the personal and the polemical. Wilderson’s sweeping claims, on my reading of them, do not just constitute historical slippages or inaccuracies, but also imply that history itself is somehow beside the point or irrelevant to his theoretical propositions. In other words, there seems to be a certain methodological incongruence between Dawson’s critique and Wilderson’s writing: while the former is concerned with material histories, the latter is theorising on different grounds entirely. This is not to diminish the significance of Dawson’s response; critical readings need not occupy the same analytic register as the objects to which they are responding in order to be generative. And—regardless of the utility of historical observations in Wilderson and Sexton’s writings—Dawson is correct to warn against the real-world implications of glossing over records of struggle and political economic change in order to craft theory. As he notes: “What is at stake is far more critical than an academic debate between abstract theorists.”
Still, the methodological incongruence between Dawson’s critique and Wilderson’s Afropessimism begs a set of questions: To what extent can historical data serve as counterevidence to a text whose animating assumption appears to be that history matters little? How might a more immanent critique of Afropessimism be constructed? What grounds Wilderson’s theoretical propositions, if not history? In other words, how does Wilderson arrive at Afropessimism and what might be said about the case material that gets him there?
The starting-point for this brief essay is Wilderson’s implicit invitation to read Afropessimism differently: not just as a field of critical theory or school of thought, but as a historical mood, a sensibility, or—what Jafari Allen would call—a “habit of mind.” What interests me are not Wilderson’s empirical or historical observations, of which he offers few in Afropessimism, but his narrative strategy. Following the literary styles of writers like Frantz Fanon, James Baldwin, and Saidiya Hartman, Wilderson fills his text with accounts of ordinary, yet personally formative encounters: a conversation with his grandmother, a fight at a boys’ club, an embarrassing moment with a romantic partner, drama with the landlord, a cab ride, office hours with a student, etc. The details of his narration—including its organisation, whom he does and does not give voice, and which encounters warrant reflection—provide the basis of his case for Afropessimism. I submit that readers might gain additional traction on the theoretical innerworkings of the text by examining the implications of Wilderson’s genre choice and writerly tendencies.
One of the noticeable features of Afropessimism, on my reading, is how little narrative significance Wilderson assigns to dialogue among Black people. Although he describes Afropessimism as “Black people at their best,” Wilderson narrates very few scenes of Black people at all. Instead, he provides many accounts of one Black person—himself—being alienated by his non-Black counterparts—e.g. a conversation between he and a Palestinian friend; a game of “secret agent” between he and three White childhood neighbors; a reception with non-Black attendees of a workshop in Berlin. It is through these encounters and others like them that Wilderson comes to recognise his standing in the world as a Black person. However, he gives short shrift to moments of intra-racial witnessing. To the extent that Wilderson does narrate encounters between and among Black people, he nearly always presents them as scenes of resentment, anxiety, or failed intimacy. In this way, Black people appear to have no moments of recognition between them—certainly no intra-racial sociality—but only what he calls “intra-Black imbroglio”: enduring confusion, painful embarrassment, or bitter misunderstanding.
Perhaps, then, it is not just a stubborn inattention to history that leads Wilderson to elide the development of intra-racial communication networks, art and literary circles, political institutions, churches, and mutual aid societies across the late-19th and 20th centuries (or what Dawson calls “the formation of modern black civil society”), but rather a more fundamental failure to imagine generative relationships between and among black people. Or, perhaps his tendency to discount patriarchy is not just the result of empirical imprecision, but is linked to how he narrates relationships and encounters with Black women—for instance, how might we understand Wilderson’s infatuation with Bernadette, onto whom he projects fantasies of an unnamed, slain Black woman? Or his general tendency not to reflect on relationships with Black women at all, except when their lives indicate forms of violence that prove rhetorically useful in his narrative? Maybe Wilderson’s insistence that “Blackness is coterminous with Slaveness” is not only a misreading of the historical record, but also the product of a habit of mind attuned to seeing “intra-Black imbroglio” first. What I am suggesting here is that Wilderson’s sweeping claims are not just inaccurate observations, but are indicative of a practice of reading, a sensibility—one more invested in the rhetorical uses of anti-black violence and death than the historical fact or political implications of intra-racial sociality.
The current uptake of Afropessimism within and outside of the academy indicates that many find its habits of mind appealing. This is likely attributable, at least in part, to the countless episodes of violence and democratic failure that shape our present: the mediatised killings of Black people, the election of Donald Trump (despite the popular vote), the election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris (despite—or maybe because of—their major political contributions to the expansion of prisons and police), inequitable access to COVID-19 related health care, etc. Black people have good reason to feel pessimistic. However, it seems that Afropessimism does not only model pessimistic feeling, but also a set of practices or a sensibility that discounts intra-racial sociality. We lose more than we gain, politically speaking, when our rage toward the world is undercut by a failure to witness each other. Countering the perils of Afropessimism requires historical correction as well as the development of an alternate habit of mind.
 Frank B. Wilderson, Afropessimism (New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Co., 2020), 96.
 Jared Sexton, “People-of-Color-Blindness: Notes on the Afterlife of Slavery,” Social Text 28 (2(103)) (2010), 37.
 Jafari Allen, “One View from a Deterritorialized Realm: How Black/Queer Renarrativizes Anthropological Analysis,” Cultural Anthropology 32(4) (2016), 620.
 Wilderson, Afropessimism, 40.
 Ibid., 100.
 Ibid., 152–5.
by Michael C. Dawson
Afropessimists argue that we can only understand the global system of racial domination if we acknowledge that it is, first and foremost, a system defined in toto by anti-blackness. Moreover, Afropessimism rejects a central role for political economy and politics for understanding the essence of black oppression. For the past few years, this branch of critical race theory has gained a number of supporters in and out of the academy. For example, Frank Wilderson’s highly influential 2020 book Afropessimism was long-listed for the National Book Award and was praised by several outstanding black intellectuals.
This essay centres the work of Frank Wilderson and Jared Sexton as they are widely recognised leaders of the Afropessimism school of thought. Wilderson and Sexton claim that the enslavement of Africans constituted a rupture; a rupture that was essential for the development of capitalism but also a rupture that put black bodies and black people outside of the logics of capitalism and colonialism. For Sexton and Wilderson, anti-blackness is both a unique system of structural dominance as well as an ideology. Anti-blackness, they claim, is defined by racial slavery and impervious to change. Sexton argues for example, “the application of the law of racial slavery is pervasive, regardless of variance or permutation in its operation across the better part of a millennium”.
In this essay, I offer a critique of Afropessimism, both as a theory of black oppression and as a political project. I make the following claims. First, Afropessimism incorrectly centres the experiences of people of African descent that were enslaved within the U.S. This results in the homogenisation of the experiences of peoples of African descent, and, equally importantly, mischaracterises and belittles the oppression of non-African colonised subjects. While I agree that anti-blackness is a central structural feature of global white supremacy that emerged with the mid-15th-century Iberian slave trade, I argue that it is not the only critical structural feature that historically defined white supremacy. Further, the ontological centring of the experiences of people of African descent in the U.S. radically and incorrectly homogenises the history and conditions of the peoples of Africa and those in the African Diaspora.
Secondly, I argue that Afropessimists overemphasise the continuities in the black experience in the U.S. While Afropessimists are correct that there are structural continuities across time that continue to contribute to black oppression—not the least of which is a continuing vitriolic and violent global anti-blackness—they underemphasise the achievements of black freedom struggles. Even Wilderson’s own biography is a testimony to critical changes in the black experience in the U.S. The positive changes that are elided in the work of many Afropessimists—such as the formation of modern black civil society and a great expansion of a robust and often revolutionary black politics— serves to erase the often heroic struggles of black activists; struggles that often tragically failed to bring substantial progress, but that also sometimes achieved victories in the struggle for black liberation.
Finally, and critically, Wilderson and Sexton present a fatally flawed account of the relationship between black oppression, white supremacy and the capitalist social order. I will demonstrate that this is a flaw that not only makes impossible any accurate account of black oppression, but also prevents us from understanding the contradictions and cleavages that exist within black communities and black politics.
Afropessimism Incorrectly Centres the Experiences of People of African Descent Enslaved within the U.S.
Afro-Pessimists homogenise the black experience. I agree with Wilderson when he argues that the enslavement of blacks, and specifically the slave trade, was a condition for the development of global capitalism, particularly as the Atlantic became more economically important than the Mediterranean. The large-scale sale of Africans in 1444 by the Portuguese marked Africans as the Other, justifying in the minds of royal, religious, and secular Portuguese elites the brutal and exceptional enslavement of Africans. Previously, only prisoners of war were subject to enslavement. This marked the moment when Africans were marked as the exception to natural law in service of accumulation; in service of profits. I also agree with Wilderson that this marks the inception of a set of anti-black logics that have taken a life of their own and have rendered black lives less valuable, subject to excessive and often arbitrary violence, and ultimately disposable during the entire history of capitalist development.
I disagree, however, when Sexton and Wilderson privilege the role of enslaved Africans and their descendants in the “New World” and homogenise the black experience. They fail to understand that black people have played a number of roles viz colonialism and have been valued differently by capitalist states and managers depending on those roles. Sexton’s claim “[t]he United States provides the point of focus here, but the dynamics under examination are not restricted to its bounds” glosses over the differences in black experience at the time of slavery and the present day, and between “New World slavery” and old-world colonialism. It assumes that the figure of the enslaved African in the “New World” can represent the entirety of black experience. This is untenable: After all, one might well argue that the experience of colonised Africans was more akin to that of the other colonised populations of Asia and the “New World” than that of their enslaved cousins. The work of scholars such as Michael Ralph and Andrew Zimmerman, among many others, demonstrate that those enslaved in the so- called “New World” was not the same, for example, as the experience of Africans in Senegambia who worked as agents on behalf of European colonial powers.
Further, these Afropessimists incorrectly belittle the oppression of non-white peoples who are not of African descent. If the threat and shadow of slavery followed those of African descent across generations, the very real threat of dispossession, massacre and even genocide at the hands of Euro-American imperialists and their clients similarly hung over entire indigenous populations across multiple continents and islands.
But Afropessimists deny this. Sexton, for example, argues that with respect to black folks, indigenous populations had the same relationship to people of African descent as the Europeans that colonised the western hemisphere, Asia, and Africa. Sexton argues, “freedom from the rule of slave law requires only that one be considered nonblack, whether that nonblack racial designation be “white” or “Indian” or, in the rare case, “Oriental”—this despite the fact that each of these groups has at one point or another laboured in conditions similar to or contiguous with enslaved African-derived groups.” In other words, Sexton here argues that modern racial slavery was so momentous than even the indigenous victims of genocide, or the conquered colonised peoples throughout the world, had more in common with whites than they had in common with enslaved African populations and their descendants—even though arguably colonised Africans had more in common with other colonised peoples than with their enslaved cousins in the Western Hemisphere.
Sexton declares, “we note the fact that ‘the absolute submission mandated by law was not simply that of slave to his or her owner- but the submission of all the enslaved before all whites. The latter group is better termed all non blacks (or, less economically, the unequally arrayed category of non-blackness), because it is racial blackness as a necessary condition for enslavement that matters most, rather than whiteness as a condition for freedom.” Even bracketing the historical inaccuracies, the logical and temporal slippage in the above passages that lead to the transformation from “enslaved before all whites” to “better termed non blacks” is stunning. The genocide of indigenous peoples in the New World preceded black slavery and was in many ways as or more brutal even if the dehumanisation processes markedly differed. Nine out of ten indigenous people died due to European diseases in the New World—yet that category was a condition for freedom? The American empire as well as that of its European counterparts required periodic massacres of racialised “natives” at places such as Sand Creek and Wounded Knee, or in the early 20th century, the Philippines where an extraordinary percentage of the population was killed during the American military intervention before World War I. In his work on racialised U.S. imperialism in the Philippines, Kramer calls estimates of 250,00 Filipinos dying as a result of U.S. military intervention during the late 19th early 20th century “conservative”. Massacres such as these were conducted by from Southern to Northern African by brutal imperialists such as the Germans and British.
To sum up: White supremacy was and is a global imperial project that divided the world into civilised, human, citizen-subjects, and non-civilised, sub-human colonised subjects. The enslavement of Africans and the centrality of the slave trade for the early development of capitalism and empire for Atlantic sector European states ensured that anti-blackness would be an enduring structural feature of white supremacy. But the processes of racialisation, domination, dispossession and exploitation associated with white supremacy differed within and across regions. Only by not homogenising the experiences of the various racially subordinated populations—including the experiences of people of African descent—will we be able to analytically forge theories and practices needed for black liberation.
Afropessimism is Anti-Political and Erases the History and Achievements of Black Liberation Movements.
Wilderson argues that blacks are not of the world, they are also not part of the “narrative,” not part of history. Wilderson states: “As provocative as it may sound history and redemption (and therefore narrative itself) are inherently anti-Black.” For Wilderson, blacks are outside of history; “space and time” are absent: “just as there is no time for the Slave, there is also no place for the Slave.” In asserting that black people are outside of history, Wilderson is making the claim that Blackness is irrevocably marked as slaveness—there is no historical change in the meaning of blackness and position of black people. In Afropessimism, for example, Wilderson claims that “Afropessimism is premised on an iconoclastic claim: that Blackness is coterminous with Slaveness.” “Blackness,” Wilderson emphasises, “cannot exist other than Slaveness”.
This is not so much an iconoclastic claim as a false one. It is true, of course, that Black lives after slavery continued to be marked by domination and violence. The spectre of extreme violence aimed at individuals and black communities, the expropriation that marked share cropping in the rural south, the super-exploitation of black industrial workers, the precarious position of black women performing paid and unpaid domestic labour, and the continued vulnerability of black women to all of the above as well as gender-based domination, all serve to emphasise the continuities of domination.
But while there were important continuities between in the condition of black people during and after slavery, the rupture caused by the end of slavery nonetheless represented a massive change in how black life was organised—a reorganisation that transformed the articulation between white supremacy and the capitalist social order. The end of slavery presented new and important opportunities for black agency even if full “freedom” was not achieved. It was marked by the formation of black civil society, the emergence of new possibilities as well as new challenges for black politics. It was during this period that the institutional backbone of black civil society was developed—including the black church (which was as much a political institution as a sacred one); black institutions of higher learning; cooperative and mutual aid societies; and. a myriad of other organisational initiatives. All were launched and/or consolidated during this period. The ability to form families, expand black politics, and build black civil society represented a type of real if limited progress.
Further, Wilderson’s claim that the black condition is defined by “slaveness,” that blacks are not of the world, they are also not part of the “narrative,” not part of history is also profoundly anti-political. For Wilderson, blacks exist outside of the domain of politics: “The violence of the slave estate cannot be thought of the way one thinks of the violence of capitalist oppression. It takes an ocean of violence to produce a slave, singular or plural, but that violence never goes into remission. Again, the prehistory of violence that establishes slavery is also the concurrent history of slavery. This is a difficult cognitive map for most activists to adjust to because it actually takes the problem outside of politics.”
Wrong. What progress has been made has been the result of fighting through social movements that, as Malcolm X urged, used any means necessary. Fighting oppression is inherently political. The anti-political nature of Wilderson’s central claim casts aside the momentous struggles of black people for liberation in the U.S., massive struggles for freedom throughout the African Diaspora, the 20th-century African national liberation struggles, as well as contemporary African struggles against neocolonialism, neoliberal regimes, and against the new imperial project of redividing Africa.
Perhaps the most immoral implication of Wilderson’s claim that slaveness defines blackness is that the human is defined against blackness. If blacks are not human then it is easier to claim that black people are outside of history, and blacks are outside the realm of politics. For Wilderson, all human life is defined in opposition blackness, in opposition to the condition of being a slave. Wilderson explains, “Human Life is dependent on Black death for its existence and for its conceptual coherence. There is no world without Blacks, yet there are no Blacks who are in the World.” This claim places Wilderson outside of both the black radical and black nationalist traditions. Black movements whether black liberal, black Marxist, or black nationalist fought and died insisting on Africans’ humanity—although some, particularly but not exclusively many black nationalists, questioned the humanity of those that enslaved others. Black movements have historically, and correctly, demanded a place in a world the recognition of one’s own humanity regardless of one’s status as enslaved, expropriated, and oppressed.
Afropessimism Distorts the Relationship Between Anti-Blackness, White Supremacy, Patriarchy, and Capitalism
Finally and critically, this version of Afropessimism severely mischaracterises the relationship between anti-blackness, white supremacy, and capitalism. Wilderson asserts that political economy is of little use for analysing the black condition as the condition of the slave, the condition of blacks, is subject to violence that cannot be explained by political economy. Further, the status of the slave is invariant to “historical shifts.” I assert that only by understanding the interaction between the multiple systems of domination blacks are subject to—white supremacy (of which anti-blackness is a central structural feature), patriarchy and capitalism—will we be able to understand for any given era the status of blacks; the massive and multiple forms of violence that blacks experience, and the way forward toward full black liberation.
In Afropessimism, Wilderson only briefly considers the role of political economy in black subjugation. He argues that the use/study of political economy cannot explain the violence committed against blacks. This violence, Wilderson argues, is invariant across time. Specifically:
“Black people exist in the throes of what historian David Eltis calls ‘violence beyond the limit,’ by which he means: (a) in the libidinal economy there are no forms of violence so excessive that they would be considered too cruel to inflict upon Blacks; and (b) in political economy there are no rational explanations for this limitless theatre of cruelty, no explanations that would make political or economic sense of the violence that positions and punishes Blackness….the Slave’s relationship to violence is open-ended…unaccountable to historical shifts.”
What Wilderson misses is that blacks are subject to multiple sources of violence—the cumulative nature of which is monstrous. Simultaneously analysing the articulation of white supremacy, patriarchy, and capitalism leads one to the realisation that blacks depending on context in various combinations experience violence as workers, women, and/or as black people. Each system of domination routinely inflicts violence for those at the bottom of each hierarchy. I would add that an aspect of white supremacy and anti-blackness is that for blacks even the forms of violence that derive from patriarchy and capitalism are intensified due to white supremacy. This violence is also rational to the degree that each form of violence is ultimately aimed at reinforcing the rule of those at the top of each system of domination.
In a much earlier essay, Wilderson more directly addresses the relationship between capitalism and black subjugation. Wilderson asserts that “…the United States is constructed at the intersection of both a capitalist and white supremacist matrix.” This statement is promising in that it hints at the simultaneous analysis of the interaction between capitalism and white supremacy. Yet, he does not sufficiently explore the consequences of this statement and does not analyse the actual dynamics created by the articulation of capitalism and white supremacy.
For example, in Afropessimism Wilderson correctly asserts that “….the emergence of the slave, the subject-effect of an ensemble of direct relations of force marks the emergence of the capitalism itself.” The “primitive” accumulation necessary for the establishment of the capitalist social order does have at its centre the brutal and hideous social relations of slavery and the slave trade, but not only slavery. But unlike what Wilderson argues, the historical record shows that under white supremacy and colonialism blacks are not the only racially subordinate group to be subject to “direct relations of force.” As Ince argues, “direct relations of force” do not only mark the subject of the slave, but of the colonised more generally such as the genocide of the indigenous peoples of particularly the “New” World (itself a precondition of capitalism). Establishing and maintaining capitalism has required the expropriation of resources and labour—simultaneously wedded to the violation of black, brown, and yellow bodies throughout the world. In the end, non-white bodies are disposable in the global North and South; in the ghettoes, barrios, reservations, prisons, refugee camps and immigration detention centres that can be grimly found throughout the world. The particularities are important—and anti-blackness is a key particularity that shapes capitalism and white supremacy, but as argued earlier, it still a part a global system of white supremacy marked by direct relations of force, and which non-whites are racialised differently by that force.
Within the context of the U.S., only a type of stubborn blindness, a refusal to acknowledge the historical record, and refusal to see the interrelationship between capitalism and racial domination can lead those such as Wilderson to argue that “we were never meant to be workers…..From the very beginning, we were meant to be accumulated and die.” This assertion flies against the historical evidence. No, blacks were meant to work, die, and be accumulated as need be. White supremacy often demands that blacks die. Capitalism demands that blacks must also, when necessary work and/or be accumulated. Each, and patriarchy as well, continually make their bloody demands. Through politics and other means of struggle blacks continually resist. This resistance can only be successful by understanding the mutual articulation between each system of domination.
Conclusion: What is at Stake?
What is at stake is far more critical than an abstract academic debate between theorists. These debates speak directly to how we understand Trump’s victory in the 2016 presidential elections and the racist, authoritarian and potentially fascist phenomenon of “Trumpism” and the rise of neo-fascist movements in the global north and south. It speaks to how we best understand the accelerating rates of inequality in both the global north and south popularly described by Thomas Piketty. It speaks to how we understand the rising wave of violence that black folks face here, throughout the Diaspora, and within Africa itself.
Afropessimists have an ahistorical narrative that distorts the relationship of white supremacy to capitalism—insisting despite all historical and contemporary empirical evidence to the contrary that the core logics of slave-based anti-blackness exists outside of, and ultimately invariant to, the dynamics of the capitalist political economy. This strand of theorising has taken root in real-world activism—in this case among young black activists struggling once again for black liberation. Afropessimism, however, presents real political dangers for those organising for black liberation. I will mention three such dangers here. By arguing that black subjugation lies outside the realm of the political, Afropessimism serves as a basis for political demobilisation rather than mobilisation. Indeed, Wilderson is correct when he states, “This is a difficult cognitive map for most activists to adjust to because it actually takes the problem outside of politics.” Second, Afropessimism severely undermines those attempting to build solidarity with other racially subordinate groups. Do we still need to be building independent radical black movements and organisations? Yes. Is building solidarity hard. Yes. Is one likely to experience anti-black racism from some other peoples of colour? Yes. Is it still a necessary task if meaningful political victories are to be achieved? Yes.
Third, by ignoring the class and gender dynamics within black communities, Afropessimism makes it far more difficult to understand the dynamics of intra-black politics. Understanding these dynamics is crucial for fighting all forms of oppression and domination that are experienced within black communities. Afropessimists are correct to insist that the logics of racial domination are autonomous and not fully determined by a capitalist social order. Afropessimists fail to understand, however, the effects of the interaction of multiple systems of domination have on black life and politics. It is our task to forge better theoretical weapons to not only illuminate the nature of oppressive systems of domination, but also to provide effective tools to combat oppression.
 There are a wide range of activists who either have been identified with Afropessimism and/or have been in conversation with prominent Afropessimists such as Frank Wilderson. Brilliant scholars such as Hortense Spillers, Saidya Hartman, and Fred Moten have been claimed by those supporting and critiquing Afropessimism. The latter two in particular have been in sympathetic conversation with Afropessimists, such as Frank Wilderson. However, they—as well as scholars such as Christina Sharpe whose argument is congruent with Afropessimism—rarely use “Afropessimism” in their own published research. Fred Moten has publicly stated that he is not an Afropessimist.
 Jared Sexton, ‘People-of-Color-Blindness: Notes on the Afterlife of Slavery’, Social Text 28(2 (103)) (2010), 37. Emphasis added.
 I am making an historical claim about global capitalist social order that emerged during the 16th century. I am agnostic about the theoretical claim that processes of racial subordination are necessary for original and ongoing capital accumulation, and thus necessary for capitalist social orders.
 Anna More, 'Necroeconomics, Originary Accumulation, and Racial Capitalism in the Early Iberian Slave Trade', Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies 19 (2019), 75-100.
 Michael Ralph, Forensics of Capital (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2015); Andrew Zimmerman, Alabama in Africa: Booker T. Washington, the German Empire, and the Globalization of the New South (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010).
 Sexton, ‘People-of-Color-Blindness’, 36.
 Ralph, Forensics of Capital; Zimmerman, Alabama in Africa.
 Sexton, ‘People-of-Color-Blindness’, 16.
 Ibid., 36.
 Paul A. Kramer, The Blood of Government: Race, Empire, The United States, and the Phillipines (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2006), 157.
 Frank B. Wilderson, Afropessimism (New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Co., 2020), 226.
 Ibid., 227. Original emphasis.
 Ibid., 225–6.
 Ibid., 229.
 Ibid., 224. Original emphasis.
 Ibid., 228–9.
 . Patriarchy is not addressed as a system of domination or oppression in Wilderson’s analysis.
 Ibid., 216. Original emphasis.
 Frank B. Wilderson, ‘Gramsci’s Black Marx: Whither the Slave in Civil Society?’, Social Identities 9(2) (2003), 225.
 Wilderson, Afropessimism, 229.
 As I and many others argued, going back to Rosa Luxemburg, it is more correct to understand accumulation as an essential ongoing aspect of the capitalist social order and reject Marx’s terminology of “primitive” or “original” (depending on the translation of Volume I of Capital).
 Onur Ulas Ince, ‘Primitive Accumulation, New Enclosures, and Global Land Grabs: A Theoretical Intervention’, Rural Sociology 79(1) (2014), 104–31.
 Wilderson, ‘Gramsci’s Black Marx’, 238. Emphasis added.
 Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014).
 Wilderson, Afropessimism, 224.
by Emily Katzenstein
Afropessimism issues a radical challenge to contemporary theories of the role and nature of anti-Blackness and its relation to other forms of oppression and domination. As the very term makes clear, it is characterised by a deeply pessimistic attitude towards the possibility of Black liberation. For Afropessimists, modernity inaugurates a “new ontology” of anti-Blackness that defines Blackness, as a constructed category, as inextricably tied to the condition of enslavement and thus as a structural position of “social death.” Afropessimists here draw on the work of Orlando Patterson, who understands enslavement as a form of “social death” defined as “natal alienation, generalised dishonor and violent domination”. As Frank Wilderson III, one of the leading theorists of Afropessimism, puts it: “Blackness and Slaveness are inextricably bound in such a way that whereas Slaveness can be separated from Blackness, Blackness cannot exist as other than Slaveness.” Wilderson thus rejects, in the most radical way possible, a narrative of progressive Black emancipation. Blackness as a structural position remains essentially fixed despite historical changes, no matter how transformative they may seem. “The changes that begin to occur after the Civil War and up through the Civil Rights Movement, Black Power, and the American election of a Black president,” Wilderson argues “are merely changes in the weather.”
But Afropessimism not only issues a radical challenge to theories and histories of anti-Blackness. It also challenges the idea that anti-Blackness functions analogously to other forms of oppression and domination that are based on distinctions of gender, race, ethnicity, or class. Anti-Blackness, in Afropessimist thought, isn’t one form of subjugation amongst many forms of oppression (race, gender, class, sexuality, etc.) but a condition of radical alterity and abjection that must be recognised as the limit of the human condition—the other of the category of “human.” Laying claim to humanity in the face of pervasive dehumanisation, Afropessimism insists, is doomed to failure because Blackness denotes a position from which laying claim to “humanity” is a political and, indeed, ontological impossibility. This implies a radical reconceptualisation of the relationship between struggles for Black freedom and struggles against other forms of oppression. In his most recent book, Afropessimism, for example, Wilderson argues that non-Black struggles against domination ultimately only become legible through the comparative illegibility of Black political claims and thus perpetuate the exclusion of Blackness from the category of “human” in order to make themselves legible as “human.”
In this series of essays on Afropessimism, which will be published in installments, Michael Dawson, Jordie Davies and Marcus Lee reflect on and grapple with the theoretical and political challenges that Afropessimism poses. In the first essay of the series, Michael Dawson reflects on the question of whether an ontological account of Blackness can theorise anti-Blackness in its complexity and in its changing historical articulations and asks if Afropessimism allows us to recognise the ways in which different forms of domination are articulated. Dawson evaluates Afropessimism’s relationship to other ideological traditions in Black political thought, such as Black nationalism and Black radical thought. In this context, he critically examines Afropessimism’s foregrounding of the libidinal (rather than political) economy and assesses its potential for generating a critique of the entanglements of white supremacy and capitalism.
In “Afropessimism and Narrative Theorising”, Marcus Lee offers a rejoinder to Michael Dawson’s critique of Afropessimism. Lee provides a close reading of Frank Wilderson’s authorial and narrative strategies and reflects on how Afropessimism imagines Black sociality and practices of recognition.
In the final essay in the series, “After Afropessimism,” which will be published on 31 May, Jordie Davies asks what political opportunities Afropessimism presents by re-centering anti-Blackness in struggles against racism and white supremacy and tackles the implications that Afropessimism has for coalition-building in movement politics.
 Wilderson, Frank B. Red, White & Black: Cinema and the Structure of U.S. Antagonisms. Durham; London: Duke University Press, 2010: 18ff.
 Patterson, Orlando. Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study. ACLS Humanities E-book. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982: 38.
 George Shulman. "Theorizing Life Against Death." Contemporary Political Theory 17:1 (February 2018), pp. 118-127: 119.
 Wilderson, Frank B. Afropessimism. Liveright: Kindle Edition, 2020: 42.
 Ibid., 96.
 Wilderson, Frank B. Red, White & Black: Cinema and the Structure of U.S. Antagonisms. Durham; London: Duke University Press, 2010: 20
 Wilderson, Frank B. Afropessimism Liveright: Kindle Edition, 2020: 243ff.
by Angela Xiao Wu
Dissent is an opinion, philosophy, or sentiment of non-agreement or opposition to a prevailing idea or policy enforced by a government, political party or other entity or individual in a capacity of contextual authority.
Before the Lunar New Year, Beijing’s winter was brutal. I bicycled daily from my college dormitory to an intensive class for the GRE test required for US graduate schools. In the camp, a talkative guy named Luo Yonghao was responsible for coaching vocabulary sessions. Buried in piles of workbooks, 200 students listened to his venting, jokes, and meandering comments about silly Chinese norms in culture and politics. It was 2004, and I was a sophomore. Much of my college days had gone into ploughing through commentaries and memoirs chaotically dumped in online forums. These materials were too “sensitive” for broadcast media. With this inoculation, I found Luo’s extracurricular offerings delightful and amusing. But I was oblivious to what came next from him.
Locating the Chinese Dissent
China entered the “Year of the Blog” in 2005. In 2006, as blogging underwent rapid commercialization, Luo Yonghao left his GRE coaching job and founded an independent blogging platform called Bullog. About the same time, I started my M.Phil. studies in Hong Kong. Each day sprawling networks of online writers engaged in endless fierce disputes. Rivalry aside, their implicit addressees were always the faceless readers on the other side of the screen. Some readers extolled, some quarrelled, and numerous others, including myself, kept lurking.
In summer 2008, the Great Sichuan Earthquake killed nearly 90,000, including thousands of children buried under shoddy public school buildings. Within a couple of weeks, led by Luo Yonghao, “Bulloggers” organized its own disaster relief initiatives and received 2.4 million RMB (then about 400 thousand USD) donation from its reader-base scattered across China. As Bullog marshalled massive civic support, it also came under attack on many sides for relentlessly demanding government accountability in school construction work and for pushing back against the patriotic fervour sweeping the country at the time. This was one of the highlights of China’s so-called “liberal dissent” that had been blossoming online.
What increasingly troubled me was the gap between my personal observations and the academic vocabulary that I had newly acquired. The dominant framework in the Anglophone research literature over Chinese politics and digital media, much informed by mainstream American political science, was one that juxtaposed liberal resistance with authoritarian rule. It focused on how people use the internet to criticize and protest. Left out were questions so prominent on my mind: Where did the protesters come from? How did they develop their dissent? The Chinese online world was a vast restless landscape of self-complacency, genuine confusion, existential exasperation, and tragic posturing of the lone enlightened thinker. What truly fascinated me was instead the emergence of discontent in a cultural/media environment instituted to hinder it. In hindsight, the issue boils down to how perceptions of a regime’s illegitimacy may grow in a population.
After I arrived in the US for Ph.D. in 2008—during the Beijing Olympics—the puzzle began to expand. What constituted dissent in China in the first place? In mainstream political science, attention to nonliberal regimes focuses primarily on factors and forces fostering formal democratization. This agenda contrasts sharply with critical theories (emergent in liberal democracies) that explicate how liberalism and neoliberalism ideologically underpin forms of oppression and exploitation.
In fact, similar tensions underlay much of the intellectual debates within China since the 1990s, known as the “right vs. left” opposition between “liberal-rightists” (e.g., many Bulloggers) and the so-called “neo-leftists.” These labels were profoundly confusing, because in post-reform, post-socialist China, being “leftist” was not perceived as radical, but as conservative, for its association with the Maoist politics of the past. The Chinese right, in turn, inherited the legacy of being persecuted under Mao. Being “rightist” was not equated with conservatism—as in clinging to traditional Chinese values such as Confucianism—but with political dissention critical of the current regime of Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
But what really divided the Chinese right and left? On the one hand, the ways in which contemporary China narrated Maoist politics were passed onto the contemporary Chinese leftist position. Was it about supporting powerful state apparatuses, economic egalitarianism, the disregard for formal procedures, or some combination of each? In the eyes of their critics, Chinese (neo-)lefts were complicit with authoritarianism. On the other hand, claiming to “speak truth to power,” the Chinese liberal-rightists targeted the party-state as the embodiment of power. The leftists accused them of propagating ideas that ultimately served the interests of capital, abandoning social groups already marginalized in China’s economic reforms, which were orchestrated by none other than the current regime. Indeed, I saw strands of liberal ideas, including market fundamentalism, circulate among many Bulloggers.
Mapping Chinese Disagreements
No singular line of division defined the purported left-right antagonism in China. But both sides strategically downplayed the latent multidimensionality in order to denounce each other. This resembled the level of complexity in political ideologies that is taken for granted for studying liberal democracies. In China, as in other societies, no popular struggles can play out without enacting the local ideological magnetism and rhetorical devices. In fact, China’s lack of institutional consolidation of partisan division through voting, political organization, education, and media might make ideological articulations even more fluid.
In the early 2010s, an opportunity led me away from the vertigo of convoluted intellectual debates to think about where ordinary web users stand amidst a constantly morphing Chinese web. Some folks created a Chinese version of the Political Compass quiz. In absence of cultures and institutions formed around partisan politics, but with a raucous web filled with ideational conflicts, people resorted to this online quiz to understand their own political positioning. Between 2008 and 2011, hundreds of thousands of Chinese took it out of curiosity. In a country where formal survey design was highly policed and survey responses unreliable due to fear and discomfort, this immense cumulation of anonymous answer sheets regarding 50 ideational statements were invaluable. They recorded what an individual simultaneously agrees and disagrees about, which in aggregation can be used to map, bottom-up, the “indigenous” political belief system.
My analysis found that, in the popular mind, while statements reflecting political liberalism (e.g., it’s OK to make jokes about state leaders) tended to come with those of cultural liberalism (e.g., supporting gay marriage), none of these had a systematic alignment with economic liberalism (e.g., opposing certain government subsidies). This is not surprising given China’s lack of education and political socialization on abstract principles guiding economic policymaking. This also means that among its broad online population, unlike within intellectual discourse, views about the economy were yet to become a prominent factor informing their political positioning.
The data shows that, between 2008 and 2011, the popular line of division was not even views about the political system. Instead, it was about whether one was for the vision of China rising to be a global superpower, something not aligning neatly with the intellectual left-right division. In other words, it is fair to say that a significant portion of Chinese web users had formed their opinions in ways that systematically rejected this aggressive nationalist craving. Such a rejection came with an embrace of plural cultural values and critical views of the political system. This was confirmed by my oral history interviews of Bullog readers. A large portion of my dissertation (2014) explored their changing subjectivities—how they groped their way out of nationalism over time. Much of this transformation hinged not on political values per se, but on them acquiring folk theories about the power of media environments in moulding one’s existing thinking. Many developed a paranoia of having been brainwashed, in sharp contrast to our broader climate where calling one’s opponents “brainwashed” is commonplace.
Regime Legitimacy as Shifting Perceptions
The Chinese government banned Bullog in early 2009, the same year that Weibo, China’s much-larger-than-Twitter platform, was launched. With technical features enabling unprecedentedly wide and swift public participation, Weibo in its beginning years was expected to further augment “liberal dissent” in China. In the summer of 2011, amid its fast growth, the propaganda department called to better “guide online opinion.” Additional to targeted censorship, this push leaned much on mobilizing government agents and legacy media outlets to encourage and amplify desirable content on Weibo. Xi Jinping rose to power in 2012. Toward the mid-2010s, China scholars and observers alike began to note a broad waning of online protests.
What makes the Chinese party-state legitimate? Plenty has been written with a focus on the CCP’s official claims and China’s historical, structural propensity (e.g., the government's economic performance was the last resort when neither a charismatic leader like Mao Zedong, nor a genuine socialist conviction, remained alive). Yet ultimately, it comes down to how ordinary Chinese conceive these issues. If emerging dissent amounts to growing perceptions of regime illegitimacy, the observed conservative turn of China’s online cultures may boil down to changing perceptions about what constitutes regime legitimacy. These perceptions exemplify how people experience and evaluate the regime—I call them “regime imaginaries.”
One way to explore regime imaginaries is to investigate how tizhi is popularly spoken of. Tizhi is an umbrella-concept difficult to concretize. Its dictionary definition is ‘form and structure, system (of government, etc.).’ Today, tizhi often invokes some aspects of Chinese establishments. The term’s extraordinary breadth, ambiguity, and opacity effectively alludes to party-state’s fraught roles in national politics, culture, and social life, which distinctly characterizes China’s sociopolitical configuration. When people talk about tizhi, what are they talking about? Coexisting ‘regime imaginaries’ are discernible from analysing massive amounts of Weibo posts containing tizhi to identify recurring semantic contexts surrounding the term. Analysing datasets from 2011 and 2016 respectively, changes were also evident.
First, the most prevalent regime imaginary in 2011—let us call it “Critical-Reform”—attributed various social ills accompanying China’s economic reform to the regime’s negligence and incompetence in governance. In 2016, vocabularies used in Critical-Reform broke down to formulate two discrete imaginaries focused on governance over economic and judiciary matters, respectively. With this change, the permeating sense of crisis and urgency for structural overhaul had waned, and in its place emerged specific issues to be addressed professionally and bureaucratically.
Second, another major regime imaginary in 2011—which can be called “Liberal-Democracy” reflected a critique of Chinese regime legitimacy according to Western liberalism. Unlike Critical-Reform, Liberal-Democracy harboured a rejection of the existing party-state system. In 2016, many of its vocabularies, such as “liberty” and “democracy,” were absorbed by the most predominant regime imaginary that I call “Civilizational-Competition.” These terms were simultaneously discredited, as Civilizational-Competition was about revelations about Western hypocrisy and calls for national solidarity. Also entailed was pride over traditional cultures and suspicion of global capitalism. In the Civilizational-Competition imaginary, the regime at once represents and protects China's prowess. Moreover, this imaginary resulted from populist sentiments, because it dominated the semantic landscape of individual user accounts on Weibo, much more than that of organizational accounts.
In short, under the Xi Administration, the two legitimacy-challenging imaginaries—Critical-Reform and Liberal-Democracy—morphed drastically in five-year’s time. On the one hand, interconnected social conflicts became pigeonholed into domains of law and administration. On the other, the liberal democratic persuasions crumbled as the sense of foreign (Western) threats heightened. Characterizing the general trends at China’s political and ideological conjuncture, the discursive landscape in 2016 was much more in the regime’s favour.
Cut to 2020, the year Covid-19 and xenophobic populism ravaged China and the rest of world. Like the Great Sichuan Earthquake of 2008, the pandemic created a moment of national crisis and in its wake sweeping waves of patriotism. Courageous individuals again emerged, with support from numerous strangers online, contending that patriotic mobilization could be blinding and oppressive. But Bullog is long gone. And there are no similar hubs for comradery and coordination, toward which alternative voices can gravitate. At any rate confidence in the current political system is peaking. But this is not solely an outcome of authoritarian coercion and censorship.
It should be clear by now that in Chinese popular imaginations regime support is intricately entwined with nationalist sentiments and impressions of Western democratic systems. Already evident in 2016, the crumbling of liberal democratic ideals boosted favourable perceptions about regime legitimacy. What 2020 witnessed in the US and other Western countries, especially through the relay of Chinese media field, further hollowed domestic visions of liberal democratic rule as a viable, let alone desirable, option.
Meanwhile on the Chinese web, quite a few erstwhile prominent Bulloggers, together with many other Chinese liberal-rightist intellectuals, openly cheer for Trumpism and deride U.S. public policies that address social justice. The human rights lawyer once enamoured on Bullog, Chen Guangcheng, who in 2012 escaped to the US from state persecution, urged US citizens to vote for Trump to “stop CCP aggression.” Luo Yonghao, Bullog’s founder and once my GRE coach, became a tech entrepreneur manufacturing smartphones in the early 2010s, and then, after his business failed in 2019, joined legions of celebrities to live stream and sell goods, which were worth hundreds of millions of RMB at a time.
In shifting global geopolitics, continuing capitalist perversion, and our desperate search for transnational solidarity, the Chinese dissent cannot be assumed as the purported “liberal resistance” to authoritarianism, cannot be delegated to persons of heroic deeds, and cannot be pinned down to any binary framework. What we need is sustained attention to how popular political discourses warp, how some convictions become cozy together while repelling others, and how these changing formations relate to larger structures of power.
by Ico Maly
We are all living algorithmic lives. Our lives are not just media rich, they increasingly take place in and through an algorithmically programmed media landscape. Algorithms, as a result of digitalisation and the de-computerisation of the internet, are ubiquitous today. We use them to navigate, to buy stuff, to work from home, to search for information, to read our newspaper and to chat with friends and even people we never met before. We live our social lives in post-digital societies: societies in which the digital revolution has been realised. As a result, algorithms have penetrated and changed almost every domain in those societies.
Algorithms have become a normal and to a large extent invisible part of our world. Hence they are rarely questioned. Only when big issues erupt—think about Facebook’s role in Trump’s election, the role of conspiracy theories in the raid on Capitol, or content moderation failures— do debates on the role of digital platforms and their algorithms become prominent. Otherwise, they just seem to be “there”, just as the old media is part of our lives. As Barthes eloquently argued, normality is always a field of power. Normality and normativity, he argued, are not neutral or non-ideological. On the contrary, they are hegemonic. Other ideologies and normativities are measured against this ideological point zero. We could expand his logic and argue that digital platforms, their algorithms, and the ideologies that are embedded in them are part of the invisible and self-evident systemic core organising daily life. Just because we fail to recognize those algorithms and platforms as ideologically grounded, it is necessary to examine and study the impact of this algorithmic revolution in general, and its impact on politics—and the production and distribution of ideology—in particular.
Ideology and the algorithmic logic of post-digital societies
Digitalisation and algorithmic culture have rapidly reshuffled the media system and the information flows and interactions within that system. Politicians, activists, journalists, intellectuals and common citizens politically engage in a very different context than in the 1990s, let alone the 1950s. We now live with an algorithmically-powered attention-based hybrid media system. The different types of media—newspapers, television, radio, and social media platforms—do not merely coexist, but form a media system that is constantly changing. That perpetual change is, according to Chadwick, the result of the reciprocal actions and interactions between those different media and their media logics. In that new media system, the distinction between “old” and “new” media or digital and non-digital media has almost become non-existent. Tweets become news and the newspaper tweets. Moreover, the newspaper is also more and more algorithmically produced.
All media in this hybrid media system are increasingly grounded in an algorithmic logic. Our interactions with algorithms determine which information becomes visible to whom and on which scale. Algorithms, datafication, and the affordances of digital media that allowed for the democratisation of transmission and the banalisation of recording disrupt the status quo. We cannot understand the rise of Trump and Trumpism, or the rise of Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and the Squad without taking this new media environment into account. While we should carefully avoid the trap of technological determinism, we cannot disregard the importance of including this new socio-technological context in our analysis of ideology and political discourse in contemporary societies. Post-digital societies create new possibilities and constraints for the production and circulation of discourse. New producers and new relationships have been established between the different actors in this media system and they have had fundamental effects on the construction and circulation of (meta-)political messages and meanings.
In the last two decades, the digital infrastructure has become an inherent part of the social fabric of society. It is one of the deep, generic drivers of concrete human behaviour in hypermediated societies. Without attention to this social structure, one risks the fallacy of internalism, as J.B. Thompson called it. With this concept, Thompson pointed to the widespread idea that the meaning of a text is only to be found in the text itself (and thus not in the attribution of meaning through the uptake and reproduction of texts). He stressed that ‘the analysis of ideology in modern societies must give a central role to the nature and impact of mass communication’, and argued that cultural experience is profoundly shaped by the diffusion of symbolic forms distributed through mass media. As a result, the study of ideology should—if one wants to avoid the fallacy of internalism—be focused on all three aspects of mass communication: ‘the production/transmission, construction, and reception/appropriation of media messages’. If we follow Thompson’s argument, we should at least direct some attention to the algorithmic nature of the distribution of discourse and ideology in contemporary societies.
Algorithmic culture and the attention-based media system
It is important to note here that algorithms are much more than mere technological instruments. They are socio-technical assemblages. Algorithms only work if they are fed with data. In other words, algorithms should be understood from a relational perspective. Not only do programmers (their values and their companies’ goals) matter, but also the interfaces, the data structures, and what people do with algorithms deserve our attention. The idea—so prevalent in public debate—that algorithms just do things and that users do not have impact is false. The recommended videos on YouTube are the result of the interactions between the recommendation algorithms of YouTube, viewers, and how producers prepare their content for uptake. Algorithmic culture matters. People will try to optimise their content, link to each other, have a network of fans which they ask to share content, or even have bots to push certain content.
Algorithms and people have agency. It is in the interaction between humans and algorithms that the contemporary production and circulation of ideology should be understood. When we take the assumption on board that algorithms have agency, then it is important to understand the socio-technical but also the economic context in which they are created. The objectives of the platforms are clear. Beneath all the fine talk of big tech boasting about ‘connecting the world’ and ‘doing no evil’ lies the quest for profit. Social platforms make profit by commodifying our digitally networked social relationships: our emotions, photos, posts, shares and likes are repackaged into ‘tradable commodities’. Or more concretely, data is used to predict the likelihood that certain audiences will be receptive or give attention to certain messages from companies or politicians. The more data those companies have about their users, the more accurately they think that sellers can target them and the more profit big tech can extract from that behavioural data. The result is an unbridled surveillance and datafication. Even if users don’t post or like and don’t leave comments, they still produce data that can be processed and traded.
In order to gather more data on their users, digital media platforms nurture a specific culture in which audience labour takes a central place. We have all become prosumers: we do not only consume information, we also produce it. This has crucial consequences: information—including good quality information—is now abundant. It is no longer a scarce commodity. A wealth of information creates a lack of attention. We have ended up in the opposite of an information economy: an attention economy. In order to convert that attention into profit, attention is codified and categorised. The like, the comment, the view, the click, the share function as proxies of attention. The digital infrastructures of the attention economy are not only organised to keep the users hooked, they facilitate audience labour and thus data production.
This commercial algorithmically-programmed attention economy creates a very specific environment in which we develop our social relationships. “Popularity” has become a crucial factor. The more followers you have, the more likes your posts generate, the more you contribute to the goals of the platform, the more valuable you are for the platforms, and the more visible you and your discourse becomes. As a result, people increasingly present themselves as public personas in search for an audience. In order to capture the attention of platform users, we see that branding strategies have been democratised. People create their brand in relation to the so-called vanity metrics: they monitor the likes, followers and uptake and use it to gain insight in what works, when, and why. Or in other words, they try to acquire and apply algorithmic knowledge to produce attention-grabbing content. The influencer or micro-celebrity is a structural ingredient of this new media environment: they help platforms in realising their goals. These new human practices are best seen as result of their interaction with the algorithms and values of that platform.
The management of visibility and ideology research
The algorithmic logic of this attention-based media environment forces us to understand the importance of algorithmic knowledge in the dissemination of ideologies on the rise. Not only the management of visibility, but also avoiding non-visibility as Bucher stresses is a constant worry for all actors in this media system and is thus of crucial importance for all ideological projects. In line with Thompson, Blommaert argued that ideologies need to ‘be understood as processes that require material reality and institutional structures and practices of power and authority’. Ideologies are thus not just a cognitive phenomenon, they have a material reality. Hence, they cannot be understood without looking at how people spread those ideas, who they address, which media they use, and how those media format the discourses. Studying ideologies in the contemporary era means not only looking at the input, but also at the uptake. Uptake here refers to
(1) the fact that within the digital ecology users are not only consumers but also (re)producers of discourse, so-called prosumers; and
(2) that algorithms and the interfaces of digital media play an important role in the dissemination and reproduction of ideas.
Uptake realises visibility. Human and non-human actors (from bots over the algorithms organising the communication on a platform) are a crucial part of any ideological and political battle. Note here that seemingly simple ‘reproduction’ actions like retweeting, reposting, liking, and sharing are not just ‘copies’ of the same discourse, but ‘re-entextualisations’: a share (and sometimes even a like depending on the algorithms of the platform) is the start of a new communication process where the initial message is now part of a new communicative act performed by a new producer who communicates to new addressees in a new type of interaction. It is also a meaningful act seen from the perspective of the algorithm: a share and a comment adds to the ‘popularity’ of the post and thus can also contribute to its visibility far beyond the audiences of the people who have shared it. Digital media are thus not just intermediaries, they affect the input and the uptake.
Messaging in the digital age is thus not a linear process between sender and receiver, but involves a multitude of human and non-human actors that are all potential senders and receivers and even co-constructs the message. This ‘uptake’ is as crucial as the input and this again highlights why it is important that ideological and discourse-analytical research not only focusses on the content, but also on the different actors and the systems of communication.
Myths, ideology, and the far-right
We can illustrate the importance of the new communicative environment when we zoom in on the emergence of the far-right in the last decades. Although it is certainly not the only factor, the algorithmic hybrid media system is unmistakably an important ingredient in this rise. It has reshaped and re-organised the far-right. The far-right has always used digital media to propagate their ideologies, but in the last decades, we see a fundamental change in the form, content and strategies that are being used today. The far right’s adoption of meme-culture, LARPing (the ironic and metapolitical use of Live Action Role Playing in order to do or say things that are too outrageous for “normies”), digital harassment, trolling, conspiracy theories, and the adoption of influencer culture for metapolitical goals are all relatively new practices that have contributed not only to the spread of their ideologies, but also to recreation, re-emergence, and the mobilisation power of the so-called true right on a global scale.
In post-digital societies, the far-right rarely manifests itself as a hierarchical organisation with one stable ideology or a mass party. More commonly it takes the form of a polycentric and layered network of niched ideological groups. Maly and Varis coined the term micro-populations to describe such social groups. They argued that micro-populations are the material expression of temporary and emerging micro-hegemonies. The Capitol riots in the US are a clear example of how all those digital practices have shaped a wide range of such micro-populations that were moulded into a militant offline mass on 6 January 2021. An analysis of the linguistic signs on display during the storming of Capitol shows us how Trump-supporters are a loose, unstable, and temporal coalition of micro-populations. Next to the red and camouflage MAGA caps and Trump hats, one could spot Confederate flags, QAnon t-shirts, Kek and “three-percenter” flags, Neo-Nazi hoodies, ‘stop the steal’ boards, and of course the Proud Boys themselves.
All these signs and emblems refer to different groups who occupy different (4chan, thedonald.win) or sometimes overlapping online spaces (GAB, Parler, MeWe). Trump—with his massive reach in the hybrid media system—was potentially most important, but he was clearly not the only communicator. Key influencers like Nick Fuentes, Dan Bongino, and Gavin McInnes all collaborated in the production and distribution of discourse. In many cases, we see a complex, layered and ‘democratic’ network of influencers that co-constructs a (micro)-ideology. If we zoom in on QAnon, then we see that even that niche is a decentralised and polycentric pyramid-like conspiracy theory that is constantly being produced and reproduced in different niches by different producers. Mom-influencers, yoga communities, 4channers, and MAGA-activists all prosume the theory and make it ready for uptake in their niches using different angles and discourse strategies.
Trying to understand 6 January means understanding how many of those micro-populations merge to become a mass. One key element is understanding that since Election Day, influencers and prosumers in all those different niches started adopting some version of the conspiracy theory that claims that this election was stolen. This particular type of coalition is grounded in a network of social media sites and of course in the digital campaign of Trump itself. These groups were born within mainstream platforms like Twitter, Reddit, YouTube, and Facebook before some had to move to more fringe platforms like Gab, Parler, and thedonald.win after being deplatformed. In the months before the riot, all those niched groups used digital media to construct their own normalities, their partisan views of the world. In that world, the election was stolen by the left, the liberals, or the deep state. The enemy was accused of manipulating the voting machines, stealing or throwing away ballots, or organising fraud with mail-in and absentee ballots. The seeds for this myth were planted by Trump in the even before his election in 2016—but of course they resonated with discourses on the deep state that were already popular in many of those niches—and were carefully constructed by many of his performances during and after the elections. Trump’s electoral loss was read as the deep state taking over control again. It created a sense of urgency and opposition to the democratic institutions of the US.
We can best understand those conspiracy theories as contemporary and vulgar variants of the Sorelian myth. The Frenchman George Sorel was a prominent and influential anti-elitist and anti-democratic philosopher within revolutionary syndicalism that had a prominent impact on fascism. Myth was central to Sorel’s thinking about revolution and the overthrow of the bourgeois order. He saw myths as “groups of ideas” or knowledge-constructs that can direct reality, people, and movements. Those ideas didn’t need to be rational or true. What was important according to Sorel was that they had affective power. For him, myths had a social function. He saw them as means to mobilise people.
If we look at the role of conspiracy theories from the perspective of this Sorelian concept of myth, we see how they function as a site of ideology:
All those political conspiracy theories create a world in which the liberal elites are destroying traditional societies, enable multiculturalism, feminism, and the destruction of Western culture. That is why debunking the myths doesn’t work. It didn’t matter that Pizzagate was debunked; the general idea—that the liberals are morally rotten—was still seen as true. Important to note again is that those myths are not only cognitive-ideational phenomena, they are grounded in a material reality which is as important as the affective qualities of those myths in the mobilisation of people.
Ideology and algorithmic politics
If we understand ideologies as ideas that penetrate the whole fabric of communities and result in normalised, naturalised patterns of thought and behaviour, then we should realise how important the role of algorithms is in the construction of that normality. The reach of these groups cannot be solely explained by the discourse they produce; all of those influencers and groups deploy ‘algorithmic knowledge’ to spread their discourse and to construct a community around their profiles. Even more, their discourse on ‘censorship’ from the mass media and mainstream digital media platforms helps them to spread digital knowledge. Far-right influencers constantly stress the importance of getting the news out by sharing and liking. This produces fertile ground to grow a supportive culture. The other side of the coin is that the interaction with the personalisation algorithms contributes to the construction of the niched groups circling around specific influencers and pages, whereas the recommendation algorithms help to build a network of different micro-populations.
If we want to analyse ‘political ideologies’, we must not only focus on the content or the large ‘isms’, but also on the form, the communication economy, and the uptake. We need to understand how politicians and activists adapt to this new communicative economy and understand how they use it for their political struggle. What is clear by now is that this new communicative economy creates a polycentric world of communication. Such a world is far more complex than a world dominated by the so-called “mass media”. It thus creates an enormous challenge for scholars of ideology, because we will need to update our toolkit. The good news is that it may help us to develop more fine-grained analysis that takes into account the full context, including the socio-technical context.
 Taina Bucher, If… Then: Algorithmic power and politics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018).
 Florian Cramer, ‘What Is “Post-digital”?’, in David M. Berry and Michael Dieter (eds.), Postdigital Aesthetics (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).
 Roland Barthes, Mythologies (Hill and Wang, 1957).
 Jan Blommaert, Discourse: A Critical Introduction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 160.
 Andrew Chadwick, The Hybrid Media System: Politics and Power (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017); John B. Thompson, ‘Mediated Interaction in the Digital Age’, Theory, Culture & Society 37(1) (2020), 3–28; Tommaso Venturini, ‘From fake to junk news: The data politics of online virality’, in Didier Bigo, Engin Isin, and Evelyn Ruppert (eds.), Data Politics. Worlds, Subjects, Rights (Abingdon: Routledge, 2019).
 Bucher, If… Then.
 Tarleton Gillespie, ‘The relevance of algorithms’, in Tarleton Gillespie, Pablo Boczkowski, and Kristen Foot (eds.), Media Technologies (Cambidge, MA: MIT Press, 2014).
 Ico Maly, ‘The global New Right and the Flemish identitarian movement Schild & Vrienden: a case study’, Tilburg Papers in Culture Studies no. 220 (2018); Ico Maly, ‘New Right Metapolitics and the Algorithmic Activism of Schild & Vrienden’, Social Media + Society (2019); Ico Maly, ‘Metapolitical New Right Influencers: The Case of Brittany Pettibone’, Social Science (2020), 9(7); Ico Maly, ‘Algorithmic populism and the datafication and gamification of the people by Flemish Interest in Belgium’, Trabalhos em Linguística Aplicada 59(1) (2020) .
 Jan Blommaert, ‘Political discourse in post-digital societies’, Trabalhos em Linguística Aplicada 59(1) (2020).
 John B. Thompson, Ideology and modern culture: Critical social theory in the era of mass communication (Cambridge: Polity, 1990).
 Ibid., 264.
 Ibid., 24.
 Shoshana Zuboff, The age of surveillance capitalism: The fight for a human future at the new frontier of power (New York, NY: Profile Books, 2019).
 Venturini, ‘From fake to junk news’, 130.
 Vincent Miller, Understanding digital culture (London: SAGE, 2011).
 José Van Dijck, The Culture of Connectivity: A critical history of social media (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).
 Nir Eyal, Hooked: How to build habit-forming products (London: Penguin, 2014).
 Van Dijck, Culture of Connectivity.
 Alice Marwick, ‘You May Know Me from YouTube: (Micro)-Celebrity in Social Media’, in P. David Marshall and Sean Redmond (eds.), A Companion to Celebrity (Hoboken, NY: John Wiley & Sons Inc., 2015).
 Richard Rogers, ‘Digital Traces in Context| Otherwise Engaged: Social Media from Vanity Metrics to Critical Analytics’, International Journal of Communication 12 (2018).
 Bucher, If… Then; Maly, ‘The global New Right’; Maly, ‘New Right Metapolitics’.
 Bucher, If… Then.
 Blommaert, Discourse, 163
 Blommaert, ‘Political discourse’; Maly, ‘The global New Right’; Maly, ‘New Right Metapolitics’; Maly, ‘Metapolitical New Right Influencers’; Maly, ‘Algorithmic populism’.
 Blommaert, ‘Political discourse’; Piia Varis and Jan Blommaert, ‘Conviviality and collectives on social media: Virality, memes, and new social structures’, Multilingual Margins 2(1), 31–45.
 Thomas Poell and José Van Dijck, ‘Social Media and Journalistic Independence’, in James Bennett and Niki Strange (eds.), Media independence: working with freedom or working for free? (Abingdon: Routledge, 2014), 182–201.
 Maly, 2018.
 Maly, 2018, Maly, ‘New Right Metapolitics’; Maly, ‘Metapolitical New Right Influencers’; Maly, ‘Algorithmic populism’.
 Ariel Winter, ‘Online hate: From the far right to the ‘Alt-Right’, and from the margins to the mainstream’, in Karen Lumsden and Emily Harmer (eds.), Online Othering: Exploring Violence and Discrimination on the Web (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2019).
 Lisa Bogaerts and Maik Fielitz, ‘Do you want meme war? Understanding the visual memes of the German Far Right’, in Maik Fielitz and Nick Thurston (eds.), Post-Digital Cultures of the Far Right: Online Actions and Offline Consequences in Europe and the US (Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag, 2019); Daniele Conversi, ‘Irresponsible radicalisation: Diasporas, globalisation, and Long-distance nationalism in the Digital age’, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 38 (2012), 1357–79; Edwin Hodge and Helga Hallgrimsdottir, ‘Networks of Hate: The Alt- right, “Troll Culture”, and the Cultural Geography of Social Movement Spaces Online’, Journal of Borderlands Studies (2019), 1–8; Rebecca Lewis, Alternative Influence: Broadcasting the Reactionary Right on YouTube, Data & Society (2018); Ico Maly, ‘Populism as a mediatized communicative relation: The birth of algorithmic populism’, Tilburg Papers in Culture Studies no. 213 (2018); Maly, ‘New Right Metapolitics’; Maly, ‘Metapolitical New Right Influencers’; Angela Nagle, Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right (Washington, DC: Zero Books, 2017); Marc Tuters, ‘LARPing and Liberal tears: Irony, Belief, and Idiocy in the deep vernacular web’, in Maik Fielitz and Nick Thurston (eds.), Post-Digital Cultures of the Far Right: Online Actions and Offline Consequences in Europe and the US (Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag, 2019).
 Blommaert, ‘Political discourse’; Maly, ‘Populism as a mediatized communicative relation’; Maly, ‘The global New Right’.
 Ico Maly and Piia Varis, ‘The 21st-century hipster: On micro-populations in times of superdiversity’, European Journal of Cultural Studies 19(6) (2015), 637–53.
 Blommaert, ‘Political discourse’.
 Ico Maly, ‘The Army for Trump and Trump’s war against Sleepy Joe’, Diggit Magazine (2020), https://www.diggitmagazine.com/articles/trump-war-sleepy-joe.
 Georges Sorel, Reflections on violence (New York, NY: Dover Publications, 2004).
 Blommaert, Discourse, 159.
 Maly, ‘The global New Right’; Maly, ‘New Right Metapolitics’; Maly, ‘Metapolitical New Right Influencers’; Maly, ‘Algorithmic populism’.
by Benedict Coleridge
In the course of a 2018 interview undertaken with Jürgen Habermas by the Spanish newspaper El País, the visiting journalists noted that Habermas’ residence, decorated with modern art, presented ‘a juxtaposition of Bauhaus modernism and Bavaria’s staunch conservatism’. While the shelves were lined with the German Romantics, the walls were adorned with icons of European aesthetic modernism, fitting the style of the house itself. In an autobiographical preface to his essays on Naturalism and Religion, Habermas gives an account of the confluence of his decorative and intellectual tastes, highlighting the distinctive experiences and hopes to which they testify. He writes of the post-war revelations that disclosed a civilisational rupture after 1945, along with the sense of cultural release brought about by the doors being opened ‘to Expressionist art, to Kafka, Thomas Mann, and Hermann Hesse, to world literature written in English, to the contemporary philosophy of Sartre and the French left-wing Catholics, to Freud and Marx, as well as to the pragmatism of John Dewey’. He goes on to suggest that ‘contemporary cinema also conveyed exciting messages. The liberating, revolutionary spirit of Modernism found compelling visual expression in Mondrian’s constructivism, in the cool geometric lines of Bauhaus architecture, and in uncompromising industrial design.’ Together, these aesthetic movements espoused what Virginia Rembert calls a determination to develop an artistic practice that conveyed a ‘new world image’. And according to Habermas, the ‘cultural opening’ instigated by these aesthetic pursuits ‘went hand in hand with a political opening’, which primarily took the form of ‘the political constructions of social contract theory … combined with the pioneering spirit and the emancipatory promise of Modernism’.
In the imaginative resources it marshals, and in its fixation with conceptual transposability, formality, and procedural neutrality, contemporary political liberalism of the Habermasian variety interacts with modernist visions of social transformation and stabilisation, even while it refuses an account of historical change spurred on by abrupt or destructive rupture. And if political and social theory leans frequently upon structuring metaphors, then it’s worth wondering whether a picture, or in this case an aesthetic, holds the Frankfurt School captive rather more literally than Wittgenstein’s phrase intends: a ‘picture’ that insists upon a conceptual and practical association between modernity, emancipation and abstraction.
On the one hand, modernism seems an unlikely inspiration for a movement concerned to integrate a textured and historically alert account of social life into its theory of normativity. As William Rehg and James Bohman point out, the reformulation of Frankfurt School critical theory undertaken by Habermas and Karl-Otto Apel, while more heavily indebted to Kant than to Marx, also sought to be ‘increasingly attuned to the challenges of social complexity and cultural pluralism’. That’s an attunement prompted by the pragmatist commitment to deriving moral norms from social experience rather than transcendental ideals, partly out of an aversion to the imperial chauvinisms unleashed by strong universalist accounts of truth, rationality, or progress.
On the other hand, however, the turn to experience is made in an effort to re-found a critical normativity beyond the impasse of the Linguistic Turn, so prising open the horizon of modernity and sustaining the kind of ‘emancipatory promise’ at which post-modernists direct suspicion. And while, unlike the Bauhaus and its drive towards an aesthetically and politically cleansed future, Habermas and his intellectual heirs refuse Walter Gropius’ mantra of “starting from zero”, modernism’s ‘cool geometry’ remains in view as an intellectual ideal and structuring metaphor. Its emancipatory promise rests primarily upon a claim, made on behalf of abstract formalism, to culture-transcending ethical neutrality—that is, the notion that we can develop normatively resonant aesthetic forms that do not suffer from the perspectival limitation that the articulation of experience generally bears with it.
To pursue the neo-Kantian ‘project of modernity’ in political theory is to search for a culturally neutral vantage-point from which to establish a universal rule morality capable of conditioning diverse ethical personalities. Of course, the powerful ideological dimension to this project is its self-construal as an essentially moral rather than a political enterprise drawing from pre-political, rational, insights. And if secular reason has been dethroned, or at least seriously challenged, by post-colonial critiques of hegemonic rationalism, then the search is on for a more diminutive, yet nevertheless critically powerful, foundation for Kantian normative universality.
In this spirit, contemporary Frankfurt school theorists of the Habermasian variety seek to sustain the ‘new world image’ of Kantian universalism without resorting to ethically parochial or rampantly metaphysical idealisations. To do so they require a kind of normativity that’s substantively ‘empty’ and open to transposition across different political and cultural sites, even while ensuring the possibility of moral imperatives in the style of basic norms, rights, and deliberative procedural commitments. For Habermas this, famously, means the rational presuppositions of communicative action, while for fourth-generation Frankfurt School theorists such as Rainer Forst and Alessandro Ferrara it entails a basic right to justification and a shared mode of aesthetic judgment respectively. By construing normativity as a matter of ‘higher level internalism’ free from dependence upon particular ethical languages (Forst), or as a matter of discerning ethical-aesthetic forms like ‘exemplary self-congruence’ in ethical traditions (Ferrara), contemporary Frankfurt School theorists, for all their internal differences, lean upon the ideal of generalisable normative forms unimpaired by narrative content, ethical convention, or cultural substance. In so doing, they recognisably accord with mid-century modernist attempts at signifying experience through an idealised aesthetic formalism that eschews cultural ‘likeness’, hoping to elude ideological parochialism via the surreal, the impressionistic, and the abstract.
But for what kind of modernity might the cool geometry and abstraction of Western modernism supply allegorical inspiration? And how might aesthetic modernism mould the relation envisaged by Frankfurt School theorists between an emancipatory spirit and a perplexingly multivalent social world? Contemporaneous with Habermas’ own career, the prominent American art critic Clement Greenberg elucidated and developed the aesthetic instincts to which Habermas has evidently gravitated, his views about artistic modernism (including Mondrian) offering some possible insights into Habermas’ own inclinations. Consider, for example, Greenberg’s influential, and controversial, articulation of the raison d’être of the avant-garde in twentieth-century art, by which painters such as Mondrian and Kandinsky produced work the excitement of which lay ‘in its pure preoccupation with the invention and arrangement of spaces, surfaces, shapes, colours, etc., to the exclusion of whatever is not necessarily implicated in these factors’. What marks aesthetic modernism, writes Greenberg, is a turn away from the ‘the subject matter of common experience’ towards the ‘medium’ of one’s own craft, meaning that the ‘nonrepresentational or “abstract”’ must ‘stem from obedience to some worthy constraint or original’. This ‘constraint’, which might once have been located in ‘the world of common, extroverted experience’, has collapsed and can now ‘only be found in the everyday processes or disciplines by which art and literature have already imitated the former’.
Note here the manner in which Greenberg associates modernism with a fixation upon the power of the medium to generate its own principles of rational construction; hence, the artist may produce and deploy colour or form in a manner that isolates them from antecedent aesthetic traditions and the cultural narratives towards which they gesture. One may thereby mobilise colour in a manner that makes the colour itself the subject of the work, rather than an element involved in the culturally defined ‘subject matter of common experience’ from which modernism, on Greenberg’s reading, turns. The implication here is that such an act of ‘pure’ aesthetic formalism is, firstly, possible and, secondly, emancipatory in its liberation of the elements that together constitute the work of art so as to establish their aesthetic relevance upon medium-specific principles—that is, as elements autochthonous to the work itself rather than bearers of cultural sediment.
The emancipatory power of the ‘spirit of modernism’—at least in the Western forms that appear on Habermas’ wall—rests upon its refusal of co-dependence between aesthetic form and cultural substance or, in relation to the social process of normative ideation, the manner in which ‘precepts and narratives operate together to ground meaning’. To flesh out this refusal in more concrete terms let’s briefly attend to one of Greenberg’s critics (and Habermas’ contemporary), Rosalind Krauss, who presents an analysis of ‘the grid’ as ‘a structure that has remained emblematic of the modernist ambition within the visual arts.’ For Krauss the grid, employed and developed by Mondrian, in whom Habermas takes express interest, ‘announces, among other things, modern art’s will to silence, its hostility to literature, to narrative, to discourse.’ If we follow Krauss’ argument, the will to silence performed by abstract forms amounts to a rejection of antecedence and postcedence, as well as any relationship of dependence upon ethically- or socially-embedded forms and traditions, thereby enacting the ‘emancipatory promise of Modernism’ to which Habermas’ project cleaves.
In so doing, an abstraction such as the grid performs a function that is ultimately non-discursive, working visually to declare its autonomy from the social or natural worlds from which aesthetic creativity might conventionally draw form. It does so, argues Krauss, by enacting a regularising and levelling function upon the artwork, ‘crowding out the dimensions of the real and replacing them with the lateral spread of a single surface.’ By means of its organised regularity the grid enacts an ‘aesthetic decree’, rather than an entry into discourse that evokes objects external to the artwork in its technical dimension.
The key point here, relevant to an assessment of aesthetic modernism’s relation to contemporary iterations of Frankfurt School social and political theory, is the notion that form, disassociated from the ‘dimensions of the real’ or from ‘the world of common experience’, possesses an internal logic that validates its own enterprise. The grid operates independently of any specific content or traceable lineage, working to order the artwork by marginalising the hinterland of cultural discourse that gives it its political and social intelligibility. Of course, intelligibility still relies upon an audience with some understanding of what is being enacted through the refusal of narrative and the rejection of precedent, but the claim that is made by the abstract self-reliance of the grid is nevertheless one of control and self-authorisation. In its avoidance of any mimetic relation to the natural or social worlds the grid sets out to establish itself as the product of ‘pure relationship’, so ‘abrogating the claims of natural objects to have an order particular to them’. And, as the scholar of African and African diaspora art history, Salah Hassan, reminds us, this has a powerful political dimension. Twentieth-century Western modernism’s emphasis on the experimental and alienated avant-gardes worked to exclude ‘realist and narrative modes’, including those produced outside of the Euro-Atlantic metropolitan art world; the narrative dissonance of the experimental performed the essential ‘purifying’ and emancipatory functions.
None of this is to say that all modernist departures from aesthetic realism or naturalism amount to a fixation upon ‘pure’ formalism at the expense of culturally-configured restatements of identity. Just as modernity remains a polysemic phenomenon, modernism as an account of the relationship between past and present takes different forms, shaped by distinct political projects and social resources. And, of course, post-war artistic modernism was as pluralistic and varied as the novel intellectual resources being generated at that moment in post-colonial constitutional and political thought. Kobena Mercer points for example to the ‘modernist strategies of formal experimentation’ present in mid-century ‘Afro-Modernism’, which destabilised an established image of ‘Africa’ available in Western societies and ‘opened a space for new understandings of black cultural influences as a core feature of global modernity.’
Afro-Modernism, suggests Mercer, was capable of establishing ‘multi-perspectival viewpoints’ by integrating the miniature and the monumental, thereby asserting their mutual dependence and the potential for non-dichotomous interaction. Jacob Lawrence’s The Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture, produced between 1986 and 1997, for example, is composed out of 15 prints developed from 41 tempera paintings, conveying episodically the dramas of the Haitian Revolution in tandem with stylistic hints at Soviet monumentalism (perhaps reflective of Lawrence’s interest in Soviet silent cinema). Afro-Modernists such as Lawrence developed formal innovations so as to produce a ‘pictorial narrative’ that ‘addressed the past genealogically’ so as to discern its political relevance. Intimate narrative scenes were made central to discerning the direction of modern emancipatory efforts. Differently, the Cuban sculptor Agustín Cárdenas, who joined the surrealist movement in Paris in the 1950s, reconciled more formal considerations in sculpture with references to totemic symbolism drawn from the Dogon ethnicity of present-day Mali. And artists like Ibrahim El-Salahi of the Khartoum School of African modernist painters have drawn upon obviously paideiac calligraphic practices derived from Qur’anic transcription, even while working under the eaves of the ideologically powerful avant-garde encountered in the former imperial metropole, London.
The ‘spirit of modernism’, therefore, doesn’t necessarily entail a disjuncture between cultural particularity and critical power of the kind pursued visually by some Western modernists and philosophically by neo-Kantians. Rather, when experimenting with form in open contact with genealogy, history, and experiential specificity, it enables the emergence of new claims to recognition through the re-conceptualisation of modernity as ambiguous, locally-determined, and hermeneutically challenging. This form of modernism moves within the contingent parameters of a particular or localised identity, making its emancipatory effort one of hermeneutical ‘amalgamation’, rather than displacement. In this sense, it arguably refuses the more canonically Western modernist program that, in Greenberg’s terms, ‘rejects the subject matter of common experience’ to pursue aesthetic and social transformation through the development of autonomous form and abstract solidarity.
Whereas, according to Kant’s definition in the Groundwork, ‘practical principles are formal if they abstract from all subjective ends’, Afro-modernism held subjective—which is to say, locally, customarily, formed—ends and their cultural signifiers to be the material from which to compose a pluralised modernity, so challenging the presuppositions of the Western art schools. This isn’t to say that, in the conventional role allotted to the non-Western post-colonial world, Afro-modernism supplied some kind of folkloric antidote to the rationalism of Weberian modernity. Rather, Afro-Modernism, amongst other post-colonial artistic movements, prised open discursive opportunities for transculturation, which made ‘modernism’ into something that conveyed multifarious cultural symbols and aesthetic ideals. Resourced by experiences and political hopes for transformation from beyond the former metropole, it began to visualise the ‘spirit’ of the avant-garde not as the displacement of customary practices but in terms of their entry, re-fashioned, into the dialogue of social and political modernity, with its novel experiences of the state, mass society, and post-coloniality.
Given the intellectual and aesthetic movement from which they stem, the visions of Bauhaus modernism and constructivism that adorn Habermas’ walls presumably convey notions of unity, abstraction, anti-historicism, and world-creation, all of which are recognisable features of his moral and political project—a project that responds to the barbarities of World War Two with the re-assertion of progressive social order based normatively upon an inter-subjective continuation of Kantianism. There are, of course, ideological connections between this interest in abstraction and the kind of modernity to which Habermas’ project strives—connections that belie the claim to normative system unburdened by cultural or ideological particularism. Indeed, without a testing stretch of the imagination a definitively modernist form such as the aforementioned grid might be construed as an aesthetic paradigm that corresponds with the broader high-modernist ambition for a rationally-designed social order, with its inevitably fraught relation to the “non-rational” and non-secular.
James Scott’s well known exploration of high modernism and state planning alerts us to the optical dimension involved in establishing a ‘rationally’ ordered relation between the social and natural worlds and over social life through the centrally enacted visions involved in urban-planning and design. But perhaps the more important point to make here is that there are imaginative alternatives that continue to move in an experimentally avant-garde direction. Instead of developing the ideological claim to authoritative cultural neutrality via formal abstraction, non-European movements like Afro-modernism and the Khartoum School actively inserted particular, historically over-shadowed identities into the modernist frame, so making the ‘new world image’ of modernity more multiform than Habermas’ domestic collection might suggest. Thought-provokingly for the political theorist, they signify that particular, local experiences, crafts, and customs may themselves propel critical social and intellectual re-arrangement and, with it, the struggle for a shared modern horizon.
 Borja Hermoso, ‘Philosophy: Jürgen Habermas: “For God’s Sake, Spare Us Governing Philosophers!”’, El País Semanal (25 May 2018),
 Jürgen Habermas, Between Naturalism and Religion: Philosophical Essays, Ciaran Cronin (tr.) (Cambridge: Polity, 2008), 19.
 Virginia Rembert, Piet Mondrian (New York, NY: Parkstone Press, 2015), 40.
 Habermas, Between Naturalism and Religion: Philosophical Essays, 19.
 William Rehg and James Bohman, “Introduction,” in Pluralism and the Pragmatic Turn (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001), 1.
 Steffen de Rudder, ‘The Bauhaus and the City as a White Spot: How Gropius Lost His Reputation on the Streets of New York’, in Laura Colini and Frank Eckardt (eds.), Bauhaus and the City: A Contested Heritage for a Challenging Future (Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 2011), 82.; Tom Wolfe, From Bauhaus to Our House (London: Abacus, 1986), 14.
 Clement Greenberg, Art and Culture (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1965), 7.
 Ibid., 6.
 Robert Cover, ‘Nomos and Narrative’, in Martha Minnow, Michael Ryan and Austin Sarat (eds.), Narrative, Violence and the Law (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press), 139.
 Rosalind E. Krauss, ‘The Grid, the True Cross, the Abstract Structure’, Studies in the History of Art 48(1) (1995), 50.
 Habermas, Between Naturalism and Religion: Philosophical Essays, 19.
 Krauss, #The Grid, The True Cross, The Abstract Structure’, 50.
 See Salah M. Hassan, ‘African Modernism: Beyond Alternative Modernities Discourse’, South Atlantic Quarterly 109(3) (2010).
 For example, see Frederick Cooper on constitutional rearrangements of post-war French West Africa. Frederick Cooper, Citizenship Between Empire and Nation: Remaking France and French Africa 1945-1960 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014); and see Adom Getachew on postwar anticolonial ‘worldmaking’ in Worldmaking After Empire: The Rise and Fall of Self-Determination, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2019).
 Kobena Mercer, ‘Cosmopolitan Contact Zones’, in Tanya Barson and Peter Görschluter (eds.) Afro Modern: Journeys Through the Black Atlantic (exh. cat., Tate Liverpool, 2010), 43.
 Ibid., 42.
 James C. Scott, Seeing like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998).