This conversation was conducted on the occasion of the Spanish translation of The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study, Los abajocomunes: Planear fugitivo y estudio negro, translated by Cristina Rivera Garza, Marta Malo, and Juan Pablo Anaya and published by Cooperativa Cráter Invertido and La Campechana Mental. The Spanish version of this interview will be included in the book. In the conversation, the significance of translating a work such as The Undercommons is addressed: What does this gesture, this movement imply? How to read this book in its Spanish version and from the current Latin American situation? And even, what does it mean to translate a critical theory book these days?
• • •
1) When we started to study The Undercommons, we immediately noticed some closeness and some distances with your ideas in relation to the Mexican and Latin American situation. For example, the significant differences between what you call the “American University” and the Mexican University, public and free of charge, or the distinctive elements of the history of black people and that of the indigenous people.1
We want to honor both your important question and the notion of context that it invokes by radically detaching context from anything like a fixed and habitable position. Specificities of context—the range of differences, say, that we might talk about under the rubric of both blackness and indigeneity—are manifest appositionally, it seems to us, and are always given in and as both the denial of position by the racial regimes of the state and capital and the refusal of position by those who want and need to live otherwise. Even within what might be called our own context, as tightly as anyone might ever want to define it, in order for our work to be read at all it will have had to have been translated, moved, displaced. Really, such translation is given already in the nature of our collaboration. The work had to be moved in order to get done, just as we hope it continually moves and is moved so that it can be undone and redone, digested and reconfigured in and through contexts we had no way or right to imagine. What if it turns out that at a really fundamental level coloniality is an imposition of the proper, and of propriety, which critiques of appropriation advance rather than retard, all in the interest of a certain stillness, an inertial resistance? There’s a general nonbelonging to which we want (deviantly, of necessity) to belong that only translation can be said to pull off or carry out or lift up over or dig down deep and sound. All we could ever hope for is to be subject to those changes, to that mobile dispossession.
And we’re not trying to be coy or sidestep the concreteness of your question. With regard to Mexico, specifically, there is an entanglement of “the history of black people and that of the indigenous people” that scholars such as Herman Bennett and Martha Menchaca have long been exploring, and in the wake of others before them.2
2) You seem to be proposing to inhabit a place of brokenness, where this state of debt—as you also refer to it—is neither outgrown nor fixed but rather reappropriated as negative or “bad” debt. This proposal acknowledges that damage can be neither repaired nor overcome, as the criteria associated with the politics of modernity impose. We wonder, in this sense: What does it mean to be able to come to terms with this brokenness? Does this imply the need to find ethical ways to endure pain or negative debt? And if so, how do you envision these forms? What seems clear is that you’re not contemplating an escape from this state, nor an ultimate healing from this historical wound; the debt, as you say, is unpayable. Does this translate into finding ways to inhabit this pain, or even to belong to it in the present?
The brokenness of place is a general condition that must be celebrated and protected. Another word for the refusal of that condition—which takes the form of the propriative borders and fences that scar the earth with the materialized desire to suture over our common incompleteness —is settler coloniality, whose tendency to bind up and, thus, reductively and often murderously make whole is an epochal brutality. We want to acknowledge that what we owe to, for lack of a better phrase, one another can be neither owned nor paid nor calculated. There can be no proper compensation. It is a bad debt that must not be made whole by extending credit, much less settling accounts. So, we have to try to understand that coming “to terms with” what we might call the nonexclusionary wholeness of the brokenness we share is nothing other than the radical destruction and rebuilding of what Frank Wilderson calls our “black capacity to desire.”4
In this regard, it’s not that we don’t contemplate an escape from this state, or the state, or the terms of order; it’s that we recognize escape, as well as healing, to be an activity rather than an accomplishment, an ongoing refusal to come to terms, to the terms of order. Healing, becoming whole, is given in the refusal of completion. And this becomes clear, where clarity tends toward both celebration and criticism, when we realize that what is owed cannot be owned and that the incalculable debt we owe one another dwarfs the incalculable debt they owe to us. They owe us an impossible reparation. We owe one another the exhaustion of their physical and metaphysical regime, which means blowing up the structure that is grounded in the idea of one and another. In this regard, as in every other, joy and pain are inseparable.
3) When taking into consideration the colonial wound, this form of staying within the space of brokenness becomes rather significant. As decolonial theorists like Rolando Vázquez have acknowledged, the project of modernity operates in a way that erases or even forbids this wound, and thus this collective pain, by relegating it to monuments, to the archive, to school, leading, as he says, to the impoverishment of experience—we would even say to the impoverishment of this collective pain.6
What if the sutural violence coloniality does to us, this brutal interplay of cutting and binding, takes as its proper form a vast set of protocols and techniques for separating, regulating, commodifying, and distributing joy and pain? We might call this a logistics of feeling in which schools, archives, and monuments each have their function within the general function of requiring our submission to this separateness of joy and pain. I think we would want to say, in this regard, and in respectful echo of Octavia Butler, that the undercommons is not utopian if by utopian we mean some non-place in which wounding and tearing—or violence, more generally—is buried or sutured over. What’s at stake, rather, is the refusal of the separation and normative distribution of joy and pain, wholeness and brokenness, where normative doesn’t just imply an inequality we come to accept as the norm but states and justifies an oligarchization of the common capacity to generate norms, thereby submitting norms, in their constant violation, to fixed regimes of the normative. Forgive this mangled version of another Butlerian insight, this time Judith’s. The main thing is this, and the pop song has it right. Love hurts. It rends. It challenges. It disrupts. It messes you up and fucks you up and insofar as it does all this, we want its full powers to be unleashed. It is in this regard that what we do for one another must surround what they have done to us, but that’s an insight we have to learn to want, and want to want, when it’s so much easier to want them, and want from them, and want to be like them, each of which is manifest as its own special impossibility. It’s not that we’re saying don’t fight them; it’s that we’re also saying fuck them.
4) How might collective writing create the necessary means to come into contact with this state of brokenness—to touch it, to sense it, and, equally important, to find ways to collectively endure it?
Writing alone, by and as oneself, leads to brokenness. Writing together can generate incompleteness. We live with brokenness, but we can also live with incompleteness, a shared brokenness, an open wholeness, that generates potentialities that go past the point of the unseemly for those who impose normativity and even for those who desire norms that will have moved against the grain of such imposition. To take up a special case, we often hear that the university discourages writing together, and rewards writing alone. We have ourselves said this, and it is true. But truer is the fact that we don’t want to write together. We are the first guardians of our posited individual contribution. This policing of our own borders of body and mind—even in light of the history of their violation, often without cognizance of their imposition—cannot but reduce us, separate us from what surrounds and infuses and projects us, and bind us in and to what and how we sclerotically gather under the governing and governance of the individual. Because we cannot bear alone the burden of the loneliness we choose, always in some way we injure one another, inured, as we are, to the fiction of one another, and to the impossibility of one’s completeness, which ongoing injury to the other is supposed to achieve. On the one hand, intersubjectivity can only break what it purports to make; on the other hand, in claiming brokenness we make intersubjectivity disappear. So, we should write together to incomplete each other. It may not cure our brokenness, but that is only because we are incurable, or to put it another way, our cura, our care, can never be of the self, but only of that touch, that rub, that press, that kinky tangle of our incomplete sharing.
5) Propuesta: For several years in Mexico the relatives of the desaparecidos have organized themselves to look for them collectively, arguing that the perpetrators are the ones who are conducting the official investigations. In the process, they have found an impressive number of mass graves with thousands of bodies throughout the country and have proved that forced disappearances are taking place at the behest of not only criminal organizations but also state bodies (and the line separating both is becoming more and more blurred). This could be understood in different ways. On the one hand, it could be said that the mourning of their loved ones has been transformed into a form of labor that extends the workplace: Looking for your daughter or son after your 12-hour work shift could be just another form of governmental precarization under our current necropolitical regime. On the other hand, it could be said that these people, when they look for their beloved ones, are creating a counter-forensic knowledge that fights against the state, while reinforcing hapticality and constructing communities of mourning. How would you understand these tensions?
This is a beautiful question that answers itself and so we will only elaborate in its spirit. Hapticality acknowledges the difference between the living and the dead, but not their separation. Not only do the mothers of those who have been disappeared feel their children, and feel them in a particularly collective way, but those children feel their mothers, and feel their mothers feeling them, bringing them together. This caring for the dead, this mutual care between the living and the dead, might be something akin to what Christina Sharpe calls “wake work.”7
6) For the first time in history, the 2018 presidential elections in Mexico will allow for independent candidates to participate in the race. For these candidacies to be added to the ballot, Mexican electoral authorities imposed a wide range of prerequisites, intended to privilege nonpartisan structures. In this context, the National Indigenous Congress (CNI), allied with the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), decided to propose María de Jesús Patricio, or Marichuy, as the first indigenous candidate for the elections. Marichuy’s candidacy did not proceed, as she did not gather enough signatures to put her in the ballot, which included gathering almost one and a half million signatures from the states of Mexico. Even so, the CNI clarified from the start that the aim of participating in the presidential elections with their candidate was not to win the elections but to use the structures of the state and the electoral times to foster an “anti-capitalist, from below and to the left,” nationwide organization. This political circumstance brings to mind your essay “Planning and Policy,” particularly its discussion of the way in which black radicalism “hopes against hope,” but also the figure of Jesse Jackson, and his candidacy for the Democratic Party nomination for President in 1984, as described by Cornel West in his essay “Reconstructing the American Left.” Considering the project of the CNI in terms of a struggle to build a stronger, nationwide organization that could be part of a political process aimed at future change, and that takes into account the first nations in Mexico, we would like to open up three lines of inquiry. Can you tell us more about the experience of the candidacy of Jesse Jackson and your argument in relation with the Cornel West article in this regard? Do you think it is possible to parasitize the state structures to build up an organization that is still part of the undercommons? And finally, how is the dialogue—if there is one—between black radicalism and first nations struggles for autonomy and territory defense?
This question has many layers. We would like to start with our social biographies. We both grew up attending Catholic mass. We don’t do that anymore, but we were marked early on by black liberation theology and Latin American liberation theology, especially when we entered university and met each other. Our big brother, Cornel West, is an eminent scholar and practitioner of the prophetic black radical tradition and comes out of liberation theology. When Professor West speaks of hope, and when we follow him in that language, we are speaking not of a pseudo-universal hope, or a national hope, or even “a people’s” hope. We are speaking of a partisan hope. Or, in other words, we are speaking of the preferential option. The Reverend Jesse Jackson’s campaign is the only time we ever voted. But, as with the recent example of Marichuy, not because we thought Jackson would win. Reverend Jackson didn’t run for the position of the President of the United States so much as he ran against it. We saw his run (especially the first one), for once, as a chance to exercise a preferential option for the poor, for black people, Latinx people, for queer people and, yes, also as a partisan vote against the rich, against the nation, against the state. Later, such partisan hopes, such preferential options were turned to a kind of vicious nationalist use under Barack Obama. This viciousness—complete with the necessary exclusion that comes with the pretense of universal hope—reproduced the border machine with unprecedented and especially chilling effect. That machine would be taken up, already fully operational, by the current U.S. President with predictable effect.
But there is another aspect of your question to be addressed—what was the fate of the Rainbow Coalition, of which Rev. Jackson was the leader, but the leader in a way Cedric Robinson understands in his classic book Terms of Order, which we quoted above? Prof. Robinson’s understanding is given a necessary feminist elaboration by Erica Edwards in her introduction to the second edition of his book as well as in her own extraordinary book, Charisma and the Fictions of Black Leadership.9
Why is black movement indigenous movement? Because in looking as closely as we can at the differences of these movements we begin, as we think da Silva would teach us, not to see their separation. Black people are indigenous people, doubly displaced—from the land and from the socius, in the land and in the socius. This displacement placed black people no place, but no place is not nowhere; it is the nonlocality of a general diffusion that is, at once, generative and genocidal. Nowhere is all but everywhere in this regard. Africa was in many of its local polities a class society, as Walter Rodney teaches us.11
7) We are curious about your relationship (if any) with infrapolitical thinking in the U.S. We are specifically referring to the work by Latin American scholars and activists such as Sergio Villalobos-Ruminott (author of Heterografías de la violencia: Historia, nihilismo, destrucción) and Alberto Moreiras, among others. 13
We are only just beginning to study the work of Ruminott, linking to it by way of Moreiras and his pedagogical relation to our colleague in black study Nahum Dimitri Chandler.14
8) In The Land of Open Graves: Living and Dying on the Migrant Trail, anthropologist Jason De León has argued that the U.S., especially through its immigration policy, has turned the Arizona desert into a lethal weapon.17
The use of the border mechanism along the Mexico/U.S. frontier, and of the state of infrastructure in Puerto Rico, should be understood, perhaps counterintuitively, as matters of resistance. These are examples of the state’s resistance to social movements. This resistance—in which logistics seeks to regulate motion and rest against the grain of logisticality, which is our undercommon need, capacity and desire for motion and rest outside and beneath and across and right the fuck through the terms and mechanics of order—is so murderous because those movements are so strong. Who is stronger, the young mother from Guatemala City and her child, having come by train and foot all the way to the U.S. border, or the border guard? It is obvious that the U.S. is, in this sense, no match for the determined bravery of the social movement of migrants, as Sandro Mezzadra has taught us to think about it, even when it deploys natural elements or manufactures natural disaster, either to resist migration or to impose displacement and insecurity, whether within or outside or in the crossing of its borders. Even today in New York, the most pacified city in the U.S., the Puerto Rican people insist on placing their freedom fighters at the head of the Puerto Rican Day Parade, risking all the sponsorship and bullshit citizenship of the parade. Nowhere in the U.S. have movements shut down an active military site, not even during the United States’ war on Vietnam. Only in Puerto Rico, at Vieques, was this achieved. The “infrastructure” was placed in Puerto Rico to control Puerto Ricans, but it failed. Now, abandoning the infrastructure is the next strategy. But the U.S. never cared about whether Puerto Ricans lived or died, only how to control them, whether by way of infrastructure’s imposition or its withdrawal. The question is, what do Puerto Ricans want to build as their social and material condition, and what logisticality is already there, having been there for a long time, as the basis of that condition? Similarly, the logisticality of migrants is there for all to see. It surpasses any logistics of the border, even as this social capacity is relentlessly attacked and placed under constant duress. This logisticality teaches us that in order for us to live in earth/flesh, in a sociality that is more than human, which is to say neither genocidal nor geocidal, the borders that impose the murderous bipolarity of in/security, which presses on us at the level of the state and at the level of personality, must be rendered absolutely and entirely unsecure. Only then can we discompose ourselves, enacting our incompleteness in an exhabitation of our own device. This movement of migrants exercises the preferential option, too—either the movement destroys the border and the nation in the most partisan fashion, or we will all be destroyed; if we lose, that is, universal and complete destruction, not difference in separability, will prevail. To be with the migrant movement is to be against the state, the border, a people, the person(ality), the neurotics of (in)security: It is not to be for a different kind of any of these impositions. In this regard, there is a need of being versed in desert things. The people who live in the desert, who learn to walk gently in and with the desert, know that the desert blooms, before and against those who weaponize it, scarring it with walls and mass graves even as they claim to have made it bloom. The truth of the desert and its blooming in movement is that there can’t even be such a thing as an open border. Instead, to be with the migrant movement is to be for a program of total disorder, a general antagonism, earth/flesh unenclosed, which is the only sustainable socius.