In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is Dixa Ramirez-D'Oleo. Ramirez-D'Oleo is Associate Professor in the English department at Brown University. Her book is This Will Not Be Generative.
Excerpt from book, This Will Not Be Generative, courtesy of Cambridge University Press:
The speculative has a long history in black writing and creativity due to its function as a rhetorical escape valve from relentless anti-black violence. Methods of speculation or fabulation have also been useful for scholars who must contend with archival gaps when attempting to reconstruct historical black social and cultural life. What I critique here is the marshalling of the speculative to rush over historical, rhetorical, and philosophical accountings of unending anti-black forms of genocidal violence. The close readings I conducted throughout this Element bely the insistence that “we” “already know” the extent and depth of the violence. If “we” “already know,” then why does black suffering continue to facilitate generativity for an exclusive “all”? If “we” “already know,” then why is negative critique that withholds a relief already withheld by the world – for some – faced with such forceful dismissal and silencing in current US academic spaces?
While speculative narratives tend to harbor utopian fantasies of the past, present, and future, horror narratives show precisely “for whom both the Anthropocene and its apocalyptic imaginaries do not necessarily hold any emancipating value” (Karera 2019: 34). What I have sought to show throughout This Will Not Be Generative is that this horror lurks beneath the ludic and “generative” language of ecological writings. They cannot metaphorize their way out of genocidal logics.
Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
Dixa Ramírez-D'Oleo: This Will Not Be Generative illuminates how the language of community, vitality, and spirit are launched with pathos against critique-as-such in what I call, broadly speaking, “ecological writings.” It attends to various works by Donna Haraway, Monique Allewaert, and Lisa Wells to expose how the metaphors of “tentacles and tendrils,” an assumptive “we,” and redemptive sympathy and “care” disguise a historical relationship of extraction from black people and blackness. I show how they echo the nineteenth-century sentimentalist and abolitionist narratives in which the rhetoric of empathy, love, and black-pain-made-attractive to white audiences replaced the threatening rhetoric (and fact) of black rage and revolution.
I show how many ecological writings follow this procedure: 1) the non-black writer incorporates her- or himself into an innovation of thought that surges out of black historical, ontological, or epistemological specificity; 2) the non-black writer excludes the blackness of the black writer’s “we”; 3) the non-black writer may end up criticizing the demands for linguistic, historical, and philosophical specificity attendant to blackness as “divisive.” The resulting “new,” “hybrid” entity, the new “we” which excludes black survival and usually issues from humans’ tinkering, is the white(ned) entity, re-energized and revamped by the useful parts of others. In this configuration, the (non-African) indigenous element remains apart from but useful to the newly miscegenated white(ned) entity or what I call the white indigène. I contrast this often-speculative rhetoric with the horror-semiotics of Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017) and Ari Aster’s Midsommar (2019), which unmask the antagonistic relationship between white survival “at the end of the world” and blackness as compost.
Given the understandable panic about climate change, what is the point of dedicating any time, energy, and resources to anything other than scientific endeavors, art, literature, and policy focused on climate change? This Will Not Be Generative defends the importance of close, critical, and ruminating analyses. One may wonder: what is wrong with wanting humanities scholars, especially those attentive to race, gender, and/or sexuality, to turn to affective registers, such as “repair,” “care,” and even “love,” where affect is compensatory for an impossible ethics? This book insists that scholarship whose function is to analyze, critique, desediment, and question without necessarily being equally concerned with the work of “creating” – beyond the critique itself – remains crucial in a world barreling into obvious fascisms, authoritarianisms, and erasures of enduring colonial violence. It argues that fascistic tendencies lurk, to loosely paraphrase Rey Chow’s assertion in Ethics after Idealism, in the language of love and idealism. After all, who gets to define the shape of this “community” and this “love”?
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
Suspicion, in a word. Among social-media-influenced academics the term “activist” has become immensely elastic. The influence of speech act theory, secularized Protestantism, and literalism are relevant here. For instance: “What I am saying is radical because I am describing it using that word” or “What I am calling rebellion and community is such simply because I am uttering those words.” This Will Not Be Generative tangentially explores this tendency because of how much language games alongside a kind of redemptive literalism arise in ecological writings. It asks readers to be suspicious of the rhetorical gambits used to scream environmental apocalypse, as though it has nothing to do with white supremacy and anti-blackness.
It notes the curious co-existence in these ecological writings of, on the one hand, the urgency requiring that “we” forgo any forms of structural accountability for enduring destruction and inequality, and especially anti-blackness, and, on the other hand, the subtle but persistent expectation and self-assurance that white survival (especially as the symbiotic and rooted white indigène), and, as such, white supremacy over all other living things, will endure. This self-assurance is the tell-tale heart beating in these writings, and it is not well disguised. However, the breathless celebration in the form of media attention, copious interdisciplinary funding in academic and art world spaces, and book contracts around Anthropocenic “end of the world” texts by mostly white writers have led to a willful blindness to what is actually written on their pages. “Why, yes,” I found myself repeating while rereading and researching for this project, “that thinker is indeed calling for population extermination as a necessary step in saving, not so much biodiverse life as it exists, but in protecting access to the scientific tinkering that will produce new forms of white humanity.” Or, “why, yes, that writer is indeed arguing that the physical mutilation and torture of enslaved black people secured their openness to the non-human natural world and this is helpful to everyone else’s becoming.”
This book urges readers not only to look more closely at what is being said or written, but also to ask: what must not be in order for this fantasy or fabulation to become a reality or to make sense? This insistence on rereading carefully and asking what qualifications the writer or speaker has to make specific statements (e.g., how did this STEM training equip this person to influence funding structures for the humanities?) is a message that is sorely needed in our current political moment obsessed with black death.
We know readers will learn a lot from your book, but what do you hope readers will un-learn? In other words, is there a particular ideology you’re hoping to dismantle?
First, I hope that it inspires people to un-learn the idea that critique-as-such is no longer necessary. By “critique-as-such” I emphatically do not mean attacks based on shoddy or non-existent evidence and cursory reading, but, rather, the kind of slow and thorough reading and thinking that takes a lot of time, effort, and training. I pored over the texts I analyzed in this book for years, in some cases, which includes studying their bibliographies and doing other kinds of secondary research. People who do not have literary studies training may be good at other things, such as biology or journalism, but they are not good at this. This book is the result of the most careful readings I have ever done.
Second, I hope that they un-learn that calling something “reparative”—like “reparative reading”—means that it is actually repairing anything. Such may, in fact, rely on various forms of violent silencing or worse.
Third, I would like academic readers, including students, to un-learn the unrealistic expectation that the role of higher education is to “heal” them. I urge my students to seek healing among friends (which may, of course, include fellow students), family, spiritual guides, and those with the appropriate training or in the position (e.g., a doula) to provide healing. If a “scholar-activist” promises that their books, classes, or tweets promise salvation from centuries of historical oppression, they are a false prophet. Our understandable desire for academia to be a more inclusive and less violent place is not the same as expecting the classroom and lecture hall to feel akin to a yoga class or a church service (the latter of which, by the way, can feel immensely violent to many of us). The increasing prevalence of academia-as-church, especially in spaces dedicated to discussing race, worries me because it seeks to enforce acceptable communal feeling rather than encourage intellectual inquiry.
Relatedly, I would like readers to un-learn the association between “black woman/femme” with the expectation of healing—with its obvious historical association with the imago of the Mammy—and between “black man/butch” with the potential for threat—with its obvious historical association with the imago of the black phallic rapist. I recently presented a portion of this book at a symposium in which a fellow presenter stated that my critique of “care,” as it is currently touted in academia, is “patriarchal.” Rather than realizing that black femme scholars do not all agree with one another, this scholar rhetorically manifested that I have, or am, a phallus. I have noted the repeated association between the highly theoretical and difficult work of Afro-pessimism and black nihilism with black male scholars as threats who stand in the way of black people’s “joy” and the expectation that black female scholars—be they Afro-pessimists or not—will provide “healing” and preserve said “joy.” I now laugh every time that an essay that alleges to “take down” what it deems to be Afro-pessimism ends with a reference to the Combahee River Collective. These binary associations—the black phallus with negative or pessimistic critique and the black maternal with resilient healing-for-all—are violent misreadings.
Finally, I would like readers to disentangle the potential association between critique-as-such with language-policing. At the above-mentioned symposium, some of the attendees transformed me into the police; any time someone followed the procedure I criticized in my book, my name would arise somewhat apologetically and with performative shame, even though I remained completely silent beyond discussions of my own work. It reminded me of the obvious projection strategy evident in the prevalent representation of the black cop in U.S. popular culture. This book is not a manual for policing language and it certainly does not ask for censorship. It does not traffic in the cycle of mea culpa and shame that so inform ecological writings. Some scholars have become so uncomfortable with critique-as-such that they confuse it for what is much more likely in the vein of post-critical reading practices: denunciation and expulsion from the “community.”
Which intellectuals and/or intellectual movements most inspire your work?
The recalcitrant, haughty, and insolent black Caribbean women in Maryse Condé’s and Jamaica Kincaid’s fiction; Rey Chow’s writings on multiculturalism in academia and how it relates to what she calls “the fascist longings in our midst”; Kincaid’s unapologetic taking up of space, specifically soil in which she gardens, and attentive to the historical and cultural residues of her act; Cecilio Cooper’s scholarship on the alchemical process that transforms nigredo into the philosopher’s stone; Colin Dayan’s writings on Haitian literature and rituals and, separately, animal-human relationships; Ren Ellis Neyra’s critique of Muñozian concept of brownness as extractive of black thought; Sara E. Johnson’s scholarship on the threat that the Haitian Revolution and “French Negroes” represented throughout the Western world; Patricia Stuelke’s recent critique of what she calls “the ruse of repair” in literary studies; Selamawit Terrefe’s close reading of how (non-black) decolonial feminism relies on an absorption and then dismissal of black feminist grammars; Calvin Warren’s meditation on the ontological terror of black being; Patricia Yaeger’s readings of white Southern women’s literature through the concept of the “unthought known”; Donna V. Jones’ writings on Henri Bergsonian vitalism; Gayatri Spivak’s, Laura Wexler’s, and Kyla Schuller’s critiques of white feminism; David Marriott’s theorizations of Jeffrey Dahmer’s becoming through his consumption of black(ened) flesh; and Frank B. Wilderson’s clarifying discussion of anti-blackness as the structuring grammar of the world. Crucially, Axelle Karera’s critique of Anthropocene discourses from a black critical theory perspective was foundational to This Will Not Be Generative.
Though not an intellectual movement—and certainly not a positive influence—part of my historical orientation to close and suspicious reading must have been my upbringing in a society still reeling from the 30-year-long fascist dictatorship of Rafael L. Trujillo, followed by the U.S.-imposed, authoritarian-government-barely-disguised-as-democracy of Joaquín Balaguer. For most of the twentieth century, Dominicans had to perform the language of intramural love and community; the language of critical inquiry could lead to your and your family’s destruction. It was a society in which everyone was turned into the police. When language was not used to perform love and devotion to an idea of community, it was used to denounce and expulse. It is no surprise that Dominican intellectuals who dedicated their work to questioning language and to unsettling its uses had no place in that society. The so-called intellectuals prized by these dictators were busy fabulating the nation-as-community. (Indeed, Balaguer was such a fabulator.)
Which two books published in the last five years would you recommend to BAR readers? How do you envision engaging these titles in your future work?
Shola von Reinhold’s pearlescent novel Lote (2020), which I will engage in my third book by deepening the inquiries I gesture towards in this short piece. And I have been reading Victor Klemperer’s The Language of the Third Reich (1957), which makes a great case for suspicious reading, to put it mildly.
Roberto Sirvent is editor of the Black Agenda Report Book Forum.