Continued from Part I: Oshun's Suicide: Eros, Repetition, and Reprieve in Black Popular Culture
So far, I have attempted to comprehend what is at stake for black erotic love by way of an example from popular culture—the domain in which erotic definitions of love furnished by black feminists are gaining increased uptake. With former Bachelor Matt James as analogy, I aimed to evidence how the pursuit for erotic love follows a politics of reprieve, a term I take from black feminist literary theorist Hortense J. Spillers, to conceptualize the, at once, legal and familial stakes of reconciliation, relief, repair, recognition within a colonial-Oedipal scene of black social relation—and return whose condition of possibility is time/temporality as such.
Love in its erotic register proves incompatible with the Revolutionary Love that Oshun is called to in that, as we witness with Matt, erotic love compels us to confront present problems through reparative approaches to the past all—under the assumption that its aporias can be approached and passively put to rest in perpetuity, which would be, for all intents and purposes, sutured, reconciled, peacefully pardoned. However, by paying more attention to reprieve as a concept that Spillers deploys to distinguish the relational capacities of the black man from the white, I insist that it is precisely in this desire for reprieve that love in its lethal and lactifying futurity reveals itself.
I take it as rather idiomatic that in the pursuit of love, Matt feels compelled to find fatherly reprieve-in/as-proper fatherly presence, which can only come by way of attempting to reckon with an a prior paternal absence that is, afterall—and, for Matt, unbeknownst—a priori for the black. It is Oshun's captive maternity that avails a way of reading Matt's desire as not merely ideological but (also) symptomatic of an anxiety announced by a form of love that is fatal without the fetishistic relief of paternal intercession; a love that begins by abolishing relation in and for itself.
Oshun, by flying to the sun, dies to her own function as deity and, thereby, attempts to interdict her own divine inheritance. Yet, her failure to do so on either account suggests that agape is the impossible and infinite task of undoing one's self on the way to undoing sovereignty, which already and in the first instance demands one's death. From here, it should become clear why Marriott writes, "That blacks can seemingly become complicit with the history of being fetish objects is thus tied to a pre-oedipal sense of a deficiency, which, Fanon says, has the same affect as the deficitary sense that blackness is lacking or missing something, hence the example of the not or n'est pas, and the guilt incurred because of it."
What does such a paradox mean for us mere mortals? How does Matt's recognition of eros as foreclosed when without fatherly reprieve relate to Oshun's death-dealing demand on a father with divine responsibility? For Matt to romantically actualize his own fatherly anxieties, to, in fact, "make those same mistakes going forward", would not only be to re-member a stereotypically truant paternity; literally putting his primal melodrama together again with himself playing the presently absent paternal protagonist this time. More than that, such a case from within the colony means that Matt cannot but be carceral to a matricidal imago—the aggressive adversary of the matriarch and matrilineal.37
Matt stands in for how eros eschews agape as Oshun's suicide. The captive maternal must be removed for eros and romance to take their rightful place on the side of reprieve, that is to say the Law of the Father in its fullness. It is important to note this because in Matt's invocation of the making of "other families," he implies a primal scene of contest that is always already racialized—other families as the Other family—and, thereby, underlines precisely how a question of paternity ossifies the blackening of maternity. He insists on not being insinuated in the making of illegitimate generations if for no other reason than what it means would malign the family romance—what a redundant phrase—as it sustains existential coordinates in the inter-racial home. From here we see how (in)fidelity is a moral metonym for a home's racial purity, making domesticity, in its predications on an interiority of one's own making and therefore whereby one can be held libidinally accountable, as such an anti-black modulus. So, contra the work on "black privacy" or any intramural Intimsphäre, in the colony, everyone is already in bed with the black imago.38 Thus, to re-settle paternal presence, which places everyone in their (im)proper relations—Matt must also countermand without equivocation what marks him as any other mama's baby: blackness as partus sequitur ventrem. What black psychoanalytic feminist Selamawit Terrefe terms "the black maternal-as-rival" must be reckoned with whenever the very conditions of possibility for filiation and relation are being waged.39
What is of most importance here, as it pertains to thinking of Oshun as a captive maternal metaphor, is that her deadly ascent seems compatible with her un-accommodatable quality for any so-called black socius to which she is committed and by which she is made necessary. On the same psychopolitical scale with which we started analyzing Matt, Oshun's suicide and what it solicits us to rethink vis-a-vis love and/in revolution is suggestive of where a black-ened ego cannot find the proper fantasy (the phallus/Father). A fantasy that would allow it to transvalue the incestuous incentive to murder the mother over and against the paternal prohibition into what Elissa Marder calls mother-death, a maternal figure in whom death is a metaphor for the vestibule to pre-oedipal life.40
Oshun as captive maternal cannot come under such a psychic counter-/cathexis. They, instead, designate a dying that cannot be defended against nor definite.The unsuccessful suicidality of Oshun shows that the very desire for a life-giving suspension does not stop disclosing eros as afro-matricidal intention. This is why it is not enough that Matt, in all reality, has a white mother. It is imperative that, under the threat of his own imminent and immanent erotic undoing, behind her white mask, something black does not lie. Matt, that is to say, invokes the crisis Oshun embodies by attempting to assimilate into a love that requires him to relinquish, ultimately, his own blackness particularly insofar as it is not to be paternally trusted—as also exactly what partitions him in its perversity, at the level of the libidinal, from eros-as-romance. In such a pursuit, the black maternal must not be, consequently, abolished in name only—the problem with the absent black father just being the problem of the present black mother; the very psychic work of the black womb as originary (non-)relation is what remains anxiously at stake and rigorously avoided. That is, Matt would ultimately need to not have ever been born as black to pursue love in a way free from fetish (the desire for a paternal past-as-reprieve) and fatalism (desires overdetermined by black maternity). Oshun seems most aware of this, in that her very decision to die—which can never be entirely decided given she's divine—also performs a kind of infanticide. Might Oshun's greatest decision as a divine doula simply be to stop being alive for erotic love to live on?
It cannot be taken as coincidence, then, that an Orisha of fertility can only fatally reproduce a divine petition [petere].41 Oshun as captive maternal metaphor may only return to the Father as a form of self-harm because the very phantasy of divine/sovereign fatherhood for the Black is premised on a maternity whose care and caress corresponds to a captivity to which no one can consent and, therefore, everyone must resent. Let's remember that in the Oedipal paradigm of the colony, absence as a father allows the abolition of the mother in exchange for incestuos re-envelopment by her sensuous abyss.42 However, the "narcissistic" slave can only enjoy this abyss as a murderous act against the mother and precisely in the sense of that which turns the pas-tout43 into something penile and aporetic, invaginatively imposed on the primordial—might this be what it means to fall over the face of the deep like an absolute darkness?44If we seem off topic it is because for Oshun, there is no difference between the abyss and her own dis-appearance, a consensual execution and corrupted forms of fecundity and affiliation. As Fanon demonstrates, incest is not so much the problem in Martinque as desire itself. If "'slavery is the ghost in the machine of kinship'", desire, as such, makes an orphan of us all; romance, its mortifying mirror-image, its suicidal ideal.45
Read Part I:
Building on the concept of agape, Revolutionary Love challenges the erotic logic of racial fetishism. An examination of Black romance and the politics and libidinal economy of antiblackness in popular culture.
Matt hopes reconciliation with paternal lack as racial stereotype prohibits the stereotypic rehearsal of a race lacking paternity. But it is exactly this wish to reconcile what never was—an unfaithful father—that is the erotic practice of a negrophobic fetish—the black maternal re-mark that is racial meaning, the murderous solicitation of maternal touch. Matt cannot see, even when looking his father in the face, how racial-sexual relation, simply, is not [n'est pas].46 The very inter-racial relations into which he was born were nothing if not the foundational failure of fidelity to a sexual sovereignty always racially late to the lasciviousness internal to the family unit as, itself, an afterwardsness [aprés-coup] of negrophobia.47 This is why the specter of infidelity that structures his father's absence contaminates love not by foreclosing its properly inter-racial function and future, as Matt thinks, but rather by placing a demand (demande), as he speaks, on erotic congress in its libidinal identity with universal law.
Brian Connolly is helpful here when he contends that "[t]he nuclear family is then an idealized, complementary unit, where conjugal and filial intimacies must be satisfactory, if only once various maladjustments are corrected for."48 What I have so far tried to suggest in kind is how romance is, as such, always after-the-fact of "such a fantasy…[that] ultimately works in the service of repressing that inaugural castration with which Freud was concerned in Totem and Taboo." This, when taken into black consideration, cannot so much as ever be repressed as already perversely enjoyed wherever the paternal metaphor conjoins irresistible request (the unconscious)—"I needed you"—with a resentful resistance (the wretched): "Moving forward," Matt eventually goes on to say, "it just confirms for me that I'm not the man that my dad is."49 Matt must level with a paternal intrusion whose underside not only undoes eros, but the entire oedipal arrangement that is his very purpose for being in the public eye.
This brings us back to why his love must not only forgo un-paternity but abolish black maternity, enslaved to its own matricide. Taking seriously what Terrefe says about relation and rivalry, black love is but a false (phantasma) rivalry with a petrifying real [réel]—"the nègre is the subject who is imagined to be uncastrated because he is castrated not by the law but by the real".5051 Black love is only insofar as it is at war with a negrophobic universality whose sexual exception it must accept as self-alienated phantasy—"I can only enjoy the racial fetish, too!"—or labor to divinely decompose—"I must die for the racial fetish!" That such a set of options are equally undecidable is the crucible and crisis of the captive maternal whose work it is to spiritually license and lead our intramural relations of love: is this not the role, in part, of Oshun? After all, however, I can neither (sovereignly/faithfully) love you as black nor love you as (slavishly/deceptively) white. Love is either universally non-black or is not at all. Black love is either lactifying in its particularity or all for no-thing.
Black love must either acquire a negrophobic ethics to prove itself non-pathological or lose all it loves to prove itself non-white. Jared Sexton suggests this when, quoting Fanon, he says "it seems that without the moral anchor of "true love" (analog to and guarantor of the thriving multiracial child), multiracialism experiences difficulty defining itself against the image of interracial sexuality 'which is responsible for all the conflicts that may arise.'"52 Love in its "authentic" or true articulations is assumed to stave off or silence the signs and symptoms of an unconscious pulsating with scenes of black rape and consensual slavery. However, if the black subject structures the sexual confusion of consent and refusal, romance as racism, is a love true to it ever recognizable without regretful gain and unrecognizable loss? This grounds Matt's assumption that a love freed from slavish obligation—a paternal question that never stops being posed by the black—can be stabilized on account of one's own "lost" sexual self-reflexivity no thanks to the un-paternal. But his relative awareness of the stakes of the inter-racial suggested in wanting to reckon with the erotic impact of paternal absence only perfects a perverse pursuit of romance that precisely confronts the "maladjusted" family given over in the phantom father as its own anti-black fantasy.
The first and final moment between races is in the mirror where the black sees nothing as neither absence nor evanescence, but the noosed truth of a love that never ends. Therefore, Matt's delimited/interracial capacity for romantic relation was also the site of his rhetorical strangulation before he became the Bachelor and, thereby, was made subject to the multiracial machinery of romance media. To repurpose Lorde's rhetoric, there is something pornographic a priori about loving the black imago insofar as it remains perpetually prostituted, sexually suspended, by an erotic knowledge fully clothed in racial purity–the phantasmatic traversal of an originary rupture in meaning and being that, when one is black, legislates a life of consent that cannot stop being mistaken for an enslaved libido. So, in the final, The Bachelor franchise and romance media as such, did not undo Matt's pursuit, racially deferring the undecidability of his beloved. Matt's pursuit for romance was already undermined in the beloved as a racial decision that cannot defer being dirtied. The shitty promise of semiotic promiscuity, for which whiteness is the only prophylactic, is what black love brings, to what black romantic aesthetics refers and fails to repress.
We are not as far off from Joy James as it may seem. James's opening with the sadomasochistic and suicidal flight of Oshun is a vignette for whether "love remains for black people a crucial path to healing" rather than an asphyxiating path to whiteness; whether care is an antidote to violence rather than an avenue for its eternal recurrence when one is the captive maternal.53 I wanted to draw out of black popular culture, in psychosexual terms, how Oshun's re-turn to Olodumare in its self-destructive identity connotes a death-driven relationship to agape that the term itself cannot fully account for precisely insofar as such a relation corresponds to the necessarily erotic relays of paternal metaphor that move through the black maternal with love and lethality in equal measure. This means that Matt, again, becomes an instrument for meditating on what is homicidally at stake for the black subject in love. Using agape as background allows us to see how erotic love must exterminate black maternity—the unambiguously Other woman—as the lack of fatherly presence so to give rise to a romance always rightfully afraid of the inter-racial; or, how love constantly takes flight from truth and consent.
Such a fear, we now know, can only be, afterall, the compulsive call of an unconscious slavery that blackens the psyche on paternal repeat. However, and this cannot be overstated, as I see it, for a Jamesian analysis of these competing registers of love: because "in this phantasy, "death" does not mean death. It is merely an expression of a desire for the mother's body," the figure of death that is the woman in incestuous glory means that James's shift to agape implies a new definition of both death and maternity whose erotic One-ness perfectly conceals what Oshun desires and demands: the divine source of captivity, theodic answers from Olódùmarè.54 Oshun dares to ask the question, can even a black god account for anti-blackness? An answer is given in the fact that she must really attempt to die even and especially as divine in the process. Oshun's suicide is Olódùmarè's reprieve and in this way, agape only an affirmation of social death. Oshun, therefore, renders love/eros, which relies on the sovereign fact of the father, even and especially in its absence as we just saw, charred, cashed-out, corpsed as she is. This conditions James's offering of agape [ἀγάπη] as a political corrective and conceptual reorientation of what love refers to from the point of view of the captive maternal.
To be sure, the figure and agapic function of the captive maternal, for James, is the conceptual nodal point or crossroad for the entire black political lexicon and as such relinquishes "promise" and "hope" for divine-death (deicide) as the only recompense, instead. What this circuitous psychoanalytic curiosity around eros has hoped to do is lay out the more quotidian stakes that such a request makes of us still attached to love in an erotic register. This magnetizes and muddles the gunfire of friend and foe, the faithful and the infidelitous in that agape gives itself away to a universal form of autoabolishing unsovereignty, that corrupts eros from within. This is why the captive maternal is "the nongender or agender functionaries who reproduced the world through the microcosm of family, community, and nation," what James elsewhere defines as a fulcrum. Love/agape/ἀγάπη is this function's centripetal force, the fulcrum's lynchpin, to follow the metaphor further, which, as we see, is nothing if not the scenes of eros at Oshun's expense (Captive Maternals 22). On my reading, it is James's argument that when we position the love for which the captive maternal is the real abstraction as Oshun's performance of spiritual self-murder, love's revolutionary potency is more etymologically apparent as agape, rather than eros.
Revolutionary Love surreptitiously gives love a necessary and newfound speculative identity away from the erotic and its reparative posture. Eros proceeds as a racial romance of reprieve-in-relation in direct proportion to what only agape can avow: every relation as such—the first being of that with the very phantasy of self—is stabilized through black flesh ungendered and, therefore, must finally be forgone, which is to say betrayed. This is what it would mean to live a natally alienated life. What else can Oshun forfeit besides her own divine family and function when on the way to confront Olódùmarè? Eros is what is given up in agape/ἀγάπη. "I am not," let's remember "the man my father was."
Then, again, can violence be the language of love no matter its etymon? Does love (divine or diurnal) distend the enigmatic grammars of black suffering (accumulation, fungibility, plasticity) as they unfold under an ethical calculus already reliant on agapic and erotic descriptive statements for revolution? What internally separates love as a god-like compulsion (agape) from being just another superegoic injunction (eros)? Where does metaphysical love end and sovereign violence begin for the black subject? Whither the psycho-sexual ecology of the slave estate? Is abolition a love language? Is care a synonym for violence? We must, after all, get past the questions one can politely ask.55
Note: Attribution numbering is continued from Part I of this essay:
37 My thoughts on matricide and black boyhood are indebted to David Marriott; see: Marriott, David. Haunted Life: Visual Culture and Black Modernity. Rutgers University Press, 2007.
38 For more on domesticity and black privacy, see: Pinto, Samantha, and Shoniqua Roach. "Black Privacy." The Black Scholar, vol. 51, no. 1, 2021, pp. 1–2., Roach, Shoniqua. "The Black Living Room." American Quarterly, vol. 74, no. 3, 2022, pp. 791–811.
39 Terrefe , Selamawit D. "Speaking the Hieroglyph." Theory & Event, vol. 21, no. 1, Jan. 2018, pp. 124–147. 40 Marder, Elissa. The Mother in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction Psychoanalysis, Photography, Deconstruction. Fordham University Press, 2012.
41 I have previously referred to the etymology of the word but I think that at this point it is best to confirm that the word "petition" comes from the Anglo-French word for "'a supplication or prayer,'… especially to a deity," and the old Latin for "'a blow, thrust, attack, aim; a seeking, searching,' in law 'a claim, suit,'" which has the "PIE root *pet- 'to rush; to fly'"; "Petition (n.)." Etymology, https://www.etymonline.com/word/petition#etymonline_v_12794.
42 For more on the abyss, see: Marriott, David. "The Abyssal." Whither Fanon?: Studies in the Blackness of Being, Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA, 2018, pp. 314–364; Cooper, Cecilio M. "Plumbing the Abyssal." ALIENOCENE, 26 Nov. 2022, https://alienocene.com/2022/11/26/plumbing-the-abyssal/
43 Pas-tout, French for not-all, refers to one of the two logical articulations of universal exception from the phallic function found on the feminine side of Lacan's formulae of sexuation. To very poorly summarize, the not-all names the nothing that can only deny phallic enjoyment of the surplus through absolute obedience to the bar of signification.This bar, however, holds in symbolic abeyance the always already racial segregation in meaning between being and having the phallus. What is important to know about this segregation in meaning, which is never racially innocuous to be sure, is that it energizes, from behind the father's back and on his behalf, so to speak, the jouissance sustained in and by the law; thereby, reintroducing desire's sexual split to what the phallus impossibly permits: feminine surplus enjoyment, a no-thing "outside" of the infinite and universal that get them both started. For more on the not-all, see: Lacan, Jacques. Encore 1972-1973, on Feminine Sexuality, the Limits of Love and Knowledge. Translated by Bruce Fink, vol. 20, W. W. Norton and Company, 1998; Hoens, Dominiek. "The Logic of Lacan's Not-All." Edited by Frank Ruda, CRISIS AND CRITIQUE, Apr. 2019, https://www.crisiscritique.org.
44 The "over the face of the deep" locution is lifted from Genesis 1:2 KJV. For the theological connection being implied here between sexual difference and the abyss, see: Cooper, Cecilio M. "Fallen: Generation, Postlapsarian Verticality + the Black Chthonic." Rhizomes, 20 June 2022, http://rhizomes.net/issue38/cooper/cooper.html.
45 Hartman, Saidiya. Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route. Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2007, p. 194.
46 The n'est pas is a Fanonian formulation forwarded by philosopher David Marriott to give what I take to be a logical (even in the Aristotelian sense) account of blackness's conceptual place in the philosophies of sexual difference and race within the fields of metaphysics, epistemology, and phenomenology. The term can be said to refer to a theory of blackness as the process of ontic-ontological, racial-epidermal crystallization that only can be said to mis-appear at the place in being that also evanesces into the universal via the trait of what can neither be negated nor named in advance, nonetheless encountered as or in its abject negativity.
47 Après-coup is the French translation of Freud's concept Nachtraglichkeit offered in his Wolf Man case most elaborately. The term rose to popularity alongside the French reception of Freud initiated by Jacques Lacan. The term's traction is indebted particularly to Lacan's student, Jean Laplanche who returned to early Freud's seduction theory and work on infantile etiology with hopes to reemphasize the primacy of the Other in post-Lacanian psychoanalysis. The term can be vulgarly said to refer to a psychoanalytic theory of time that describes how the traumatic symptoms of the subject involve sexual experiences during adolescence that are only recollected retroactively as such through the enigmatic messages of the parent/authority given over in secondary traumatic events or encounters ostensibly disconnected from the primal scene. More simply, après-coup describes memory acquires its meaning after-the-fact of its initial source of reference, which remains opaque to the subject itself. Following Adrian Johnston, "the après-coup effect demonstrates that subsequent vicissitudes of psychical experience and/or structure can actually expel traces of the past. The remaining holes in the fabric of first-person memory can only be patched over by the analyst's third-person "as if" constructions, namely, by metapsychological reason's speculative work in the here-and-now of the analytic dialogue" (Johnston 227). For more on the term, see: Laplanche, Jean. Problématiques VI: Après-Coup. PUF, 2015; Johnston, Adrian. Time Driven: Metapsychology and the Splitting of the Drive. Northwestern University Press, 2005.
48 Connolly, Brian. "The Nuclear Family." Parapraxis, Parapraxis, 12 Jan. 2023, https://www.parapraxismagazine.com/articles/the-nuclear-family.
49 "Matt James Breaks down after Confronting His Dad about Being Absent." Entertainment Tonight, Entertainment Tonight, 10 Mar. 2021
50 There are so many different registers in which the Real works across the work of Lacan that it would be impossible to accomplish what even Laplanche could not in this footnote by giving you an even sloppily succinct definition. The most I can say is that it often appears as a slip or stutter in the chain of signification that suggests for the subject a structure of speech that is in them more than themselves while constituting them as such; that is, an unassimilable force from within outside of either their knowledge or control. This does not even begin to describe what Slavoj Zizek calls the "real Real" of which science is after. However, it might be most helpful to know that it is co-constitutive of Lacan's three-part symbolic order as that within the order that refers to being-in-itself. For more on this, see:Žižek, Slavoj. How to Read Lacan. W.W. Norton & Co., 2007; Evans, Dylan. An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis. Brunner-Routledge, 2003;
51 Marriott, David. Lacan Noir: Lacan and Afro-pessimism. Palgrave Macmillan, 2021, 78. Thank you to Jaeden Johnson for reminding me of this line while in conversation.
52 Sexton, Jared. Amalgamation Schemes: Antiblackness and the Critique of Multiracialism. University of Minnesota Press, 2008, p. 167.
53 Hooks, Bell. All about Love: New Visions. HarpersCollins, 2001.
54 Marder, Elissa. The Mother in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction Psychoanalysis, Photography, Deconstruction. Fordham University Press, 2012. p. 33.
55 Spillers, Hortense J. "Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe: An American Grammar Book." Diacritics, vol. 17, no. 2, 1987, p.76.
Building on the concept of agape, Revolutionary Love challenges the erotic logic of racial fetishism. An examination of Black romance and the politics and libidinal economy of antiblackness in popular culture.
Moving intellectualism from the academic factory into communal struggle, a new roundtable seeks to examine, engage, and interrogate James's subversive attempt to reclaim revolutionary struggle from the academy—and deliver it back to communities.
More in blackness:
The changing seasons are an apt metaphor to talk about the shedding, withering, and falling away that accompanies the most painful parts of grief. Nnenna Freelon takes us on a walk through the woods to contemplate autumn and the possibility of renewal.
A wife for nearly 40 years, Nnenna Freelon now wonders what to make of the term widow when she still feels the significance of her marriage well after her husband's death in Black Widow, the final installment in the season of Great Grief, Wailing Women.
Hair holds our history, personality, identity—and our grief. In episode 3 of Great Grief, Nnenna Freelon visits her mother's beauty salon, where generations of Black women have gathered to discuss their hair—the grief over it, and the grief under it.
The weather bears witness: On calamity, rebirth, and Blackness in the face of climate crisis and the chaos of the natural world. "Perhaps in every wind roaring, in every storm raging, our ancestors are not only watching over us, but watching out for us."