Adam Pendleton, Black Dada Reader Publication

Afterward from Black Dada Reader

By Adam Pendleton

Abstraction is also flight. lt is freedom from the immediate spatiotemporal constraints of the moment; freedom to plan the future, recall the past, comprehend the present from a reflective perspective that incorporates all three; freedom from the immediate boundaries of concrete subjectivity, freedom to imagine the possible and transport oneself into it; freedom to survey the real as a resource for embodying the possible . . .

Adrian Piper, "Flying" (1987)

A term like "afro-conceptualism" is useful for the way it stages the relationship between abstraction and freedom.

ls there a role for abstraction in the abolition of alienated labor?

This phrase—the abolition of alienated labor—is European in origin but would seem already to better describe the arc of North Atlantic history than that of the Continent. Or—and this is the point—the words abolition, alienated, and labor have a unique and indisputable material record in the history of slavery. Nor should this record surprise us, for if the influence of the Haitian Revolution on Hegel's conceptual account of the struggle against identity is as it should be, then it is not too much to say that all conceptualism of a certain lineage is afro-conceptualism, whether it knows it or not. The difference between self-conscious afro-conceptualism and the "normal" conceptual conceptualism with which it is contrasted would then be simply that: a difference of self-consciousness. lt is not that afro-conceptualism is another instance of conceptualism; instead, it names the material encounter—the record of which is the conceptual project—as such.

Let me try to be more specific. Sometimes we talk about identity politics, usually as a foil. But it is worth remembering that all hitherto-recorded history is the history of identity politics, properly understood. I do not mean in the sense of a primordial clash between distinct, fully formed races, nations, classes, or genders, but, on the contrary, the way in which these very identities are themselves produced after the fact to justify the current regime of accumulation. To say that the struggle of workers in a factory is "more real" than the struggle of black people against institutionalized exploitation, or than queer struggle against heteronormativity, is not only unjust, it is inaccurate. In truth, if we were forced to articulate a chronology for the naturalization of socially antagonistic identity assignments, we would have to say that gender appears first, and then race, and that class, in the historical sense, happens last, and is modeled on the other two. The phrase "identity politics" is like "afro-conceptualism" in that it marks as derivative what is, if anything, original. This does not mean these terms are without analytic merit, just that they are invitations, notes received in the mail to reserve a place in the future for their unfolding as events, when their power as truths will manifest.

ln striving toward this moment, I wish to offer a distinction that I think may be helpful. I begin by asking after the role of abstraction in the process of abolition. One way of answering this question is to distinguish between two experiences, or two modes of abstraction. The first is the experience of abstraction as a force, which happens when the body is subject to violence by virtue of its ostensible coincidence with one of the identity assignments Iisted above. The belly of the slave ship, sexual violence, and the fourteen-hour day on the assembly line are all examples of this kind of abstraction. Abstraction is a force whenever and wherever the subject is misrecognized as an object. We know this misrecognition has taken place by the refusal, or resistance—to use Fred Moten's language—of these subjects to their utilization as objects. At first these refusals appear simply as anomalies, but, with time, they demand to be accounted for.

It is in the service of this demand for recognition that the second experience of abstraction arrives: the practice of abstraction, or abstraction as a relationship. This is the experience described by Adrian Piper in her essay "Flying," from which I take my epigraph. For it is precisely by practicing abstraction—by poetry or painting or whatever—that the subject confirms itself as other-than-object. We call this process of confirmation a revolution—the amalgamated refusal whereby what was previously understood as an object is now recognized as a subject. And so, Amiri Baraka represents the slave ship onstage in all its abstract force, drag places gender at the service of collective performance, and workers insist on control over their expenditure of time and energy. ln each case, the object pulls away from itself and becomes a subject practicing abstraction, insisting on the distance between itself and the ground.

It has been said that the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house, but what about the people the master treated as tools? That is, the "tools" that were themselves capable of practicing abstraction, those three-fifths? Before the question about tools can be asked, there must already be an understanding about what a tool is and what it is not. My point is simply that it is the struggle for access to the master's tools, and the tool of abstraction in particular, that creates this difference in understanding by destroying the misrecognition lurking behind mastery in the first place. One day there are masters and tools, and the next, only people. No forces, just relations. Black Dada is the name I borrow for the immanent historical possibility of this transformation: Black for the open-ended signifier projected onto resisting objects, Dada for yes, yes, the double affirmation of their refusal. Yes, yes to afro-conceptualism, yes, yes to the practice of abstraction, yes to history, all of it, yes to freedom, all of it, yes, to flight, yes to flying in the future, heart was going like mad yes, I say yes.

  • Essays — Afterward by Adam Pendleton, Feb 1, 2023