Black Madness and Thinking Resistantly

This week we are revisiting Therí A. Pickens’s new book, Black Madness :: Mad Blackness (Duke University Press, 2019). Today we are featuring an essay by Christopher Baswell.

[D]emonstration and acknowledgment of one’s various interesting socially marginalized positions does not equal political agency.” —Therí Pickens, Black Madness :: Mad Blackness


For some years now, Therí Pickens’s writings have been teaching me new ways to think, and her editorial and activist work has offered me models of productive resistance. Repeatedly, and again in the book we’re celebrating here, she has been my guide to better knowing and understanding what is going on in Disability Theory, and (I confess, in my ignorance) my primer in the critical exploration of race and ethnicity. It’s a pleasure to talk about some ways that the conversations in her new book Black Madness :: Mad Blackness (try, by the way, to say that five times fast) is teaching me further, newer ways to think, and I’d like to emphasize, to think resistantly. She helps me resist, just to start, the persistent metaphorization (which is to say, erasure) of race, madness, and more broadly disability.

What seems to me most important in this book is its pressure, its insistence that we move past two comforts of recent critical theory, both of them flawed because of their invitation to stasis. First, Therí pushes us past aporia, the acknowledged contradiction or impasse in naming, especially when it circles around versions of identity. More important to my mind, this book persistently refuses us the sometimes-too-easy notion of what is mutually constitutive: that (in this instance) Blackness can be constitutive of madness or disability, or madness constitutive of Blackness. The book acknowledges this as an initial premise, then — and I want to choose my words very carefully — bullies us past it. “In contrast, I theorize that madness (broadly defined) and Blackness have a complex constellation of relationships […] constituted within the fissures, breaks, and gaps in critical and literary texts.” For the [terms], as Pickens shows again and again, are never neatly reciprocal, and they cannot be left in the temporal stasis that a neatly mirrored reciprocity invites. Such unequal, unstable reciprocal constitution needs to be encountered on the grid of social and erotic relation, and on the grid of time (be it the chronology of fiction or our chronology) and — again this is Pickens’s lesson — those two grids do not map comfortably upon one another either.

And this leads me to a favored word in the Pickensian vocabulary: slippery. Even in settings of typically stable and privileged subject positions — let us say white, male, middle-class — add just one further quality and the grid skews in unnerving, unexpected ways. Indulge me then in two brief pieces of autobiography that I think speak to Therí Pickens’s work in this book.

Let me tell you two stories. Both of them date from about 30 or so years ago, and both might be different today — I refer you back to Pickens’s emphasis on chronology.

One: I am living in a rural area, on sabbatical. Behind my home is a large and undeveloped forested area, where animals have long left paths that I can traverse without too much difficulty. Wandering back there one day, I hear the voices of two boys approaching, I turn a corner, they turn a corner, and we’re facing each other. They are perhaps 8 or 9 years old, and I am not the expected fauna. They freeze for a moment, silent now, then turn, and run. I carry on, but these boys know the woods well, and a while later, from another direction, they approach again. Again we freeze, silent until the larger lad says, “We thought you were a ghost.” I answer, “Well, I’m not.” The spokesman of boyhood replies, “OK,” but neither looks very convinced. We part.

And I am now back to Therí’s conceptual category of the slippery. Shift one subject category — wheelchair-using rather than abled — and even identity as a living being is strangely under threat. Pickens makes profitable use of the Derridean notion of hauntology, which also helps parse this moment, an occasion of instant nostalgia for a future identity — life, embodied humanity — deferred or erased. I remain haunted by this encounter, ghosted by it to use yet another of Pickens’s terms which newly help me understand that moment.

A second, really rather simpler story, from around the same years, but now back in Manhattan. On a surprisingly frequent number of occasions, usually on a busy sidewalk at night, someone, usually male and usually white, would bump into me, pause apologetically as he regained his balance, and explain, “Oh, sorry! I didn’t see you there…” OK OK, but might some of you remember the wheelchairs of 30-plus years ago? A 45-pound rattling cage of shiny chrome, and you. did. not. see. me? Another sort of hauntology here, I think, in which the mobile observer becomes — surprisingly — blind to a presence that threatens his own category. But not seeing wasn’t the only strategy these guys fell back on. Let me complete my last quotation, from which I left out one final word. The complete phrase was “Oh, sorry! I didn’t see you there, Miss.” Huh? I started balding in my 20s, but obviously perceptual [categories], particularly Therí’s great term ocularcentrism, aren’t at work here. Now, I am fine with gender fluidity — at one time I might have called it my lifestyle — but nothing so joyous was at play here. If the unprocessed wish to delete me wasn’t working, his language retreated, I think, to a another category of not-quite-presence.

And Therí’s discussion, especially of the juridical threats of erasure in Octavia E. Butler’s great and final novel Fledgling, has helped me better understand these haunting moments. I quote from earlier in the same conversation: “Disability […] does not quite exist as a material reality but rather as a hauntological presence that helps create race and gender.” I would only add that it can equally subvert or erase categories of gender and even existence. And, indeed, that is a part of her conversation on and with Tananarive Due’s African Immortals series. Pickens and Due ask, can we re-parse the sort of life encounters I’ve just described not as erasure, but opening alternate and powerful versions of the human?

Now as I said, I don’t think these encounters would repeat identically these days. Maybe, today, three out of four privileged categories are adequate to stable subject position — witness the wheelchair-using governor of Texas. But this only demonstrates Pickens’s persistent insistence that the negotiations of identity aren’t static, that chronology must be taken into account, with its own pressures on the grids of selfhood. And further, in a final conversation that invites the term visionary, and by means of the African Immortals series, she invites us to contemplate what might be an end of time.

I would like to close with two further words that seem key in Pickens’s arguments: desire and excess. The kinds of blood that overflow in Butler’s and Due’s novels here exemplify the unnerving, sometimes affirmative conjunctures of pleasure and mortality (Have I mentioned that this a surprisingly sexy book?) and the invitation to imagine immortality. I would extend that idea to the very borders of the pages Pickens produces, a site where we are invited to pleasure ourselves by a readership she rightly insists must be participatory.

And I would push these terms — pleasure and excess — to invite reflection on another final word, my own, that seems to me implicit in much of what Pickens is doing: that experience of the margin, beyond created or identifiable space or subject, for which our species has made up the word ecstasy.

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Christopher Baswell

Christopher Baswell is a Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University and the Anne Whitney Olin Professor of English at Barnard College. Baswell’s earliest research was in the reception and transformation of classical literature, especially narratives of empire and dynastic foundation, in the vernacular cultures of the European Middle Ages. He has approached these issues through the optic of original manuscripts, and in the light of the multilingualism of medieval France and England. Some of this research resulted in Virgil in Medieval England: Figuring the Aeneid from the Twelfth Century to Chaucer (Cambridge UP 1995), which won the 1998 Beatrice White Prize of the English Association. Further work on foundation narratives has led to articles and a forthcoming monograph on narratives of female foundation and their challenge to a dominant tradition of founding fathers.