A provocative prompt such as this induces thoughts and lines of flight that one must harness, to some extent, for the sake of clarity and space. Perhaps one way to begin a response to the question (which is at once mundane and metaphysical) is to break it down into its components: This, All, Is, There Is. As Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel shows us in the beginning of the Phenomenology of Spirit, any gesture toward a “this” assumes a “that” by which the former achieves its determinacy. Perhaps the question betrays an indirect commitment to something else, to a that which has not been actualized but which remains the condition of (im)possibility for a well-defined this.
The term “All” evokes similar queries and concerns. The term “all” signifies completion, a sense of being finished and attaining wholeness. As the French literary critic Georges Bataille points out, human desire is torn on this matter. The self’s desire to be all, to be in communion with the entire world, constantly runs up against limits and reminders of loss, contingency, and mortality.
Finally, the “Is” and “There Is” components of the prompt bring to mind questions of being, ontology, and gift. Think here of Martin Heidegger’s fascination with the idiom “Es Gibt,” a German term that translates to “It Gives” or “There is,” a term that for Heidegger indicates the possibility of donation (of being, existence, care, grace) that is not attributable to a well-defined source or giver.
While this venerable tradition of continental philosophy comes to mind when thinking about the above prompt, so do other legacies of thought and practice, including black studies. What I am interested in is not only an excess to the “this” and ostensible “all there is” but also how this excess contains an ambivalence—it is both horrifying and lambent—in the context of black strivings. Think for instance of Frederick Douglass’s well-known description of the spirituals, the slave songs that for him defy simple meanings and general inclinations toward clarity. He writes:
While on their way [to the Great House Farm], they would make the dense old woods, for miles around, reverberate with their wild songs, revealing at once the highest joy and the deepest sadness . . . They would sing, as a chorus, to words which to many would seem unmeaning jargon, but which, nevertheless, were full of meaning to themselves. I have sometimes thought that the mere hearing of those songs would do more to impress some minds with the horrible character of slavery, than the reading of whole volumes of philosophy on the subject could do.
I did not, when a slave, understand the deep meaning of those rude and apparently incoherent songs…They told a tale of woe which was then beyond my feeble comprehension; they were tones loud, long, and deep; they breathed the prayer and complaint of souls boiling over with the bitterest anguish . . .
In this provocative passage, Douglass contends that the slave song brings together affects and qualities that we usually imagine as opposites—highest joy and deepest sadness; unmeaning jargon and words full of meaning. There is something about the cry of the slave that reveals, or resounds, the brutality of slavery in a manner that volumes of philosophy cannot accomplish. The sonic anguish that “boils over” and transcends feeble comprehension—anguish in response to kidnapping, forced labor, torture, sexual violence—refuses the notion, popular during Douglass’s time, that these songs were “evidence of [slaves’] contentment and happiness.” On the contrary, Douglass claims that “slaves sing most when they are most unhappy.” Here I take it that Douglass is not suggesting that their songs do not contain moments of joy, intimacy, and pleasure. More strongly, he is denying any stable distinction between joy and sadness or anguish and exaltation. The complexity, and incoherence, of the rhythmic cry cannot be contained by the usual distinctions we use to imagine these affective states. The laughter of the slave, as depicted in the infamous film The Birth of a Nation, is more than it appears; conversely, the cry of the slave is not “all there is.”
There is a degree of “opacity” within the slave song, a trope that Saidiya Hartman borrows from Édouard Glissant in her interpretation of Douglass’s description of these songs. Hartman writes, “Rather than consider black song as an index or mirror of the slave condition, this examination emphasizes the significance of opacity as precisely that which enables something in excess of the orchestrated amusements of the enslaved and which similarly troubles distinctions between joy and sorrow and toil and leisure.” According to Hartman, we tend to focus on the spectacular examples of violence within the regime of slavery while ignoring what she calls the “terror of the mundane,” including those moments of pain and torment on the coffle or auction block where captive bodies were disciplined to appear jovial and content. The slave song is opaque partly because it indicates a mode of concealment or dissimulation; it registers anguish in a system that presents itself as benign and entertaining. Therefore, the “subterranean and veiled character of slave song” points to the “accumulation of hurt” in a manner that “confounds simple expression and, likewise, withstands the prevailing ascriptions of black enjoyment.” What we encounter in the black spiritual (in historical accounts or contemporary renditions) is more than we initially hear.
Frank Wilderson’s Afro-pessimism offers yet another way into the question “Is this all there is?”. Afro-pessimism, in Wilderson’s formulation, underscores the antagonistic relationship between the Human and blackness. While we are usually told that the Human is a universal, all-inclusive category, Wilderson contends that the sphere of human recognition is predicated on anti-black violence and an inability to acknowledge the constitutive nature of that violence. The coherence of the domain of humanity, in other words, relies on a disavowal of bodies that are imagined as not quite human, wild, excessive, out of place, unfree, death-bound, and so forth.
Here it might appear that Wilderson’s work does not really help us interrogate and probe our question. Yet if we linger a bit, we notice how his writings suggest that the Human is more and less than it appears. The being of the Human defines itself against a constitutive, opaque outside; the being of humanity indirectly points to a realm of non-being and positions certain bodies at the border of being and non-being, life and death. Consequently, the Afro-pessimist demonstrates that the order of things is not what it seems; “this” social order and “this” regime of the Human relies on fundamental divisions and modes of exclusion (unlike Wilderson I do not think that black people are always the privileged objects of these fundamental antagonisms). The constitutive nature of the violence of the Human is diminished when we assume that “what is” can encompass “all” without a destabilizing remainder and excess.
While the position of Afro-pessimism apparently offers a preliminary answer to the prompt—things cannot change so this must be all there is—Wilderson frequently responds to the regime of anti-blackness with a call to the end of the world as we know it. This is a quasi-apocalyptic call . . . a call to develop strategies that point to a radically different world, earth, and modes of (non)-being. Perhaps there is something that exists outside this, this all t(here), this order of things. Yet it is difficult to name that something else. We can only say with some certainty that an earth without fundamental violence would be “not this.”