Saturday, October 14, 2017

Review: In the Wake

[Christina Sharpe. In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. Durham NC and London UK: Duke University Press, 2016.]

This book develops ways of exploring and describing the relations that constitute Black diasporic life.

As I understand it – and I’m sure I’m missing lots – it begins from a recognition that conventional ways of approaching historical archives, as well as many more contemporary sources, leave unsayable much that is crucial to understanding Black experience, because of how anti-Blackness has shaped what is kept and what is erased, and how it continues to shape the very fabric of dominant ways of knowing. As well, most dominant scholarly ways of knowing are vastly inadequate to understanding the relationships among all of those different kinds of sources.

To challenge this, the book develops a novel approach that weaves all of these things together – historical sources, current events, and diverse sorts of cultural and artistic production that are grounded in Blackness.

The title, In the Wake, points to the book’s use of the multiple meanings of “wake”, but particularly the disturbance of water that a ship has passed through, as a figure through which the relationships among the past, the present, and the cultural and artistic can be understood. The ship that leaves this wake is not, of course, a generic ship but the slave ship that carried kidnapped Africans to the Americas. The book argues that Black diasporic life remains unavoidably shaped by slavery, to the extent that it is not a matter of slavery having ended and something new begun, but rather today continuing in/as the “afterlives of slavery.” The specific legal institutions may be long gone, but the logics which animated them are just as present and just as crucial to shaping Black life today.

The book goes on to employ other figures drawn from the era of slavery – the ship, the hold, and the weather, most prominently, but others as well. It seems to me that each of these is meant to capture some common aspect of experience shared broadly by people in the Black diaspora. It takes those aspects of experience that find no reflection in ways of theorizing the world that refuse to engage seriously with Black standpoints and names them, describes them. It then shows how the figures thus named weave through not only everyday Black life today, but through histories stretching back to the beginning of the transatlantic slave trade, and through a wide range of visual art, drama, literature, film, photography, and other cultural making by Black artists.

The book also presents an understanding of resistance based in a recognition that these circumstances, this living in the wake, is something that will not be changing any time soon. Rather than seeking some sort of immediate material strategy that might overthrow this order, its focus is on building on and enhancing the ways in which Black people already navigate it – ways of seeing, learning, speaking, and caring that enable Black life in the midst of the afterlives of slavery – as the only possible sources of the seeds of broader transformation. To translate that into slightly different terms, it seems to me to aim to cultivate a form of living otherwise from a place within, against, and beyond the wake, where “beyond” is and will for the conceivable future remain in an imaginative and aspirational register.

The most obvious level of learning from this book for those of us who are white is about the social world: We do not live in the wake, in the sense this book means of being targets of its violence, but even so we live lives that are organized through social relations that have been profoundly shaped by slavery and its afterlives. One outcome of that shaping is, of course, incentive and encouragement for us to remain largely unaware that it is happening. This book is a chance to look at elements of the world that we have made and that has made us that we usually look away from.

I also think the book has much to teach not just about the social world but about ways of producing knowledge about the social world. It's not a matter of directly taking up its approach – its method depends, I think, on access to standpoints of Blackness that I simply don't have. But its example can serve as a sort of destabilizing and disrupting influence for approaches to knowledge production that have other sorts of groundings. It's a push to re-think any way of knowing that is unable to recognize and connect with what it describes, a push towards specific askings of "What is missing from my account? What lives? Whose humanity? What violence? Whose readings?", and a push towards much more creative and fluid ways of perceiving and navigating interconnections among ways of making knowledge and meaning and beauty that are often kept separate.

I do worry a little bit that its ideas about responding to life in the wake might be misunderstood by some white readers as advocating a sort of quietism. Not the book's fault, of course, and not the book's responsibility to address. Especially when its clear and complex glimpse into the mountainous inertia of violence that is part of our world but so often hidden from our everyday lives is such a (difficult but important) gift, and one that, if we sit with it, can perhaps help in grounding our own reflections about how to resist, how to relate, how to perceive, how to engage in care.

[Check out the somewhat out-of-date but still extensive list of book reviews on this site.]

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