As part of the Black Agenda Report Book Forum, we interview scholars about a recent article they’ve written for either an academic journal or popular publication. We ask these scholars to discuss their article, as well as some of the books that have most influenced them.
This week’s featured scholar is Charles Athanasopoulos. Athanasopoulos is an incoming Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at Gonzaga University. His article is “A Program of Complete Disorder”: The Black Iconoclasm Within Fanonian Thought.
You describe your article as an "extended meditation" on Frantz Fanon's idea that decolonization entails "a program of complete disorder." How does this connect to both Black liberation and what you call “Black iconoclasm”?
By Black liberation, I mean the end of a world built on Black social death. This desire has been a driving force of Black rebellion since the creation of European modernity. The concept of Black liberation is hotly contested: can it be achieved? who has the best approach to ending this world? who can offer us an image of a world beyond this one? Fanon articulates how our imagination is so constrained by the logics of Western Man that even the way we typically imagine Black liberation, and a new Black world, turns out to reflect “the white mask.” Black iconoclasm is a lens of reading that examines how Black radical disruptions of celebrated public symbols (e.g., police officer, American flag) offer opportunities for inventing new ways of thinking, relating, and meaning making. This entails tracking how icons of racial progress – which I define as public symbols ranging from figures such as President Obama, Hollywood films like Judas and the Black Messiah, or emerging monuments, graffiti, and murals across the U.S. in response to Black Lives Matter – mutate in response to Black radical disruptions as a means of moderating their potential to overturn the status quo. Racial icons make us fall in love with a particular image of Black liberation that can be folded back into this unbearable anti-Black world. Therefore, I choose to meditate on Fanon’s statement that “decolonization, which proposes to change the order of the world, is, obviously, a program of complete disorder” because this statement cuts against the grain of discourses that mistake the icon for racial liberation. Fanon’s “program of complete disorder” reflects Black iconoclasm as a ritual process of Black negation that constantly breaks apart the ossifying iconography of Western Man, thus generating spaces for radical invention. In smashing various icons of Western Man, including even the most radical claims to have found the path to a new Blackened world, we can sit with the various jagged, non-linear, and messy trajectories that emerge from their broken pieces.
How does your reading of Fanon challenge some of the more conventional readings we see in academic and activist circles?
Scholars across a multitude of fields have crafted their own iconic image of Fanon. I begin with Stuart Hall’s declaration that Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth is “the Bible of decolonization.” From my perspective, the pursuit of, and the claim to have secret knowledge of, the blueprint to decolonization is anti-Fanonian. Offering this extended meditation on Fanon’s “program of complete disorder” is thus a way of highlighting that Fanon’s idea of radical invention requires the complete suspension of all teleological narratives, clearing out all a priori values which he calls tabula rasa. I also unsettle attempts by scholars to de-fang Fanon by reading his comments on Black culture as separate from his project of decolonization: this both includes poststructuralist readings like Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s “critical Fanonism” and traditional Marxist readings that, because of their inability to consider anti-Blackness beyond their limited grammar of exploitation and alienation, cannot fully grapple with the libidinal economy of anti-Blackness. Finally, I challenge the idea that the interpretation of Fanon as a revolutionary humanist is the “authentic reading” of his corpus. Engaging afropessimist ideas and scholarship on anti-Blackness, including but not limited to the scholarship of Frank Wilderson, Jared Sexton, David Marriott, and Christina Sharpe, I understand this investment in the rehabilitation of the human as another racial icon that is being mistaken for liberation. While revolutionary humanism is directed as a critique of Western Man, this attempt to revalorize or redeem Blackness in relation to the human operates within the same limited form of thinking. Yet, this afropessimist orientation to the human has been derided as being unable to account for the messiness of lived experience. How do we get to the end of the world? Navigating new paths through afropessimism, Black iconoclasm tries to consider what it might mean to ritualize or rhetoricize this idea of ending the anti-Black world by meditating on Fanon’s “program of complete disorder.”
In a previous essay, you make a call to “smash the icon of Black Lives Matter.” Can you explain what you mean by this and why you find it important to draw on religious language in your work?
Using the concepts of “icons” and “ritual,” which I draw from religious studies scholarship, allows me to articulate how public symbols are made in this anti-Black culture (e.g., the violent Black thug) and how those public symbols are meant to induce certain habits (e.g., anti-Black violence under the guise of self-defense). This linkage between icon and ritual points to the fact that anti-Blackness operates as a kind of religion insofar as it produces a cosmology (worldview). Black iconoclasm is interested in how the potential for completely undoing that cosmology might be gleaned in challenges to deeply celebrated symbols of American culture and their associated rituals. This also allows me to consider how this limited iconographic imagination evolves and mutates in response to Black radical disruptions, like Black Lives Matter, by producing sanitized iconic versions of them that lull us back into an acceptance of this anti-Black cosmology. This is all to say, thinking about anti-Blackness as a living breathing religious investment that is constantly evolving allows us to think about anti-Blackness on a structural level (the cosmology/iconography) and the level of lived experience (habit/ritual) at once. This is how I arrived at this idea of “smashing the icon of Black Lives Matter” which simply means refusing the attempt to reduce the multitude of bodies, rituals of protest, and political trajectories coalescing around the movement into a universal and static image. As we have seen, the creation of a new iconic image of BLM has stifled its more radical elements as a means of gaining acceptance into the mainstream (which is how we go from “Abolish the Police” to “Defund the Police”). I also argue, negotiating the contours of afropessimism, that there might exist an investment in humanism within the declaration “Black Lives Matter” that stifles radical invention. Who are we asking to validate that Black Lives Matter? Ultimately, my argument is to smash the icon of BLM as a means of opening back up that polyvalent movement of bodies, rituals of protest, and political trajectories coalescing around BLM as a means of creating new opportunities for radical invention.
Much of your research is informed by theorists Christina Sharpe, Saidiya Hartman, and Calvin Warren. How does their work help us understand and embrace the idea of Black iconoclasm?
I find that the scholarship of Christina Sharpe, Saidiya Hartman, and Calvin Warren have in common a refusal and antagonism of the anti-Black world. Alongside other scholars including, but not limited to, Frank Wilderson, Jared Sexton, David Marriott, Sylvia Wynter, Fred Moten, Zakiyyah Iman Jackson, Frantz Fanon, and Édouard Glissant, the three scholars you have identified have helped me think through anti-Blackness as the governing force of the modern world, the category of the human, radical imagination, and the relationship between negation and invention. Hartman’s Lose Your Mother and Scenes of Subjection, for example, were important for my understanding of Black natal alienation and the violence of white liberal empathy and inclusion. Yet, I am also appreciative of Sexton’s criticism of the idea that there is a such thing as “the fugitive slave” in relation to his argument for theorizing slavery as maximum captivity. Warren’s Ontological Terror was informative for thinking about how the negativity of Black iconoclasm unsettles the affective atmosphere of anti-Black culture and how we might find tools of endurance. Yet, I find compelling the debates between Warren and Sexton over whether Black liberation is possible, or endurance is all we can hope for. I’m also interested in how Zakiyyah Jackson’s critique of approaching Blackness through Heideggerian discourses of “nothingness,” as Warren does, might elide what she calls Black plasticity. Christina Sharpe’s notion of “wake work,” as a complex process of rituals dedicated to defending the dead, helps me consider how to push beyond simply diagnosing the anti-Black world while also refusing a static blueprint of Black liberation. In the Wake has influenced my understanding of Black iconoclasm as offering an orientation toward Black negation that creates spaces for radical invention by placing the demand for the end of the anti-Black world within the context of everyday lived experience and practice. Black iconoclasm humbly engages these various tempos and trajectories coming into contact within the Black radical tradition as a site of radical invention. I am interested in how they might continue to unsettle the status quo and my own theorizing.
A lot of organizers, artists, and academics can often point to books that helped radicalize them. Are there any books that radicalized you? How so?
There are too many books to name, but two that stand out to me are Black Skin, White Masks (BSWM) by Frantz Fanon and Red, White, and Black (RWB) by Frank Wilderson. BSWM spoke to me for how it discusses the psychological impact of anti-Blackness, the way we become so invested in anti-Black logics that even our image of Blackness is simply a reflection of the white mask. Which is to say, Fanon’s vulnerability spoke to me: his somewhat personal reflections on how Black people come to identify with the white mask, and from his perspective in the Caribbean, how Black Antilleans come to view themselves as distinct from the pathological image of the Negro circulating within white colonial regimes. In this sense, Fanon has been useful for considering the iconography of Western Man in context of self-image construction, interpersonal relationships, and culture alongside analyses of political economy. Alongside books like Sexton’s Amalgamation Schemes, which similarly tackles this kind of discourse of miscegenation-as-freedom-from-racism, BSWM has been useful for my thinking and writing about Afro-Puerto Rican identity in relation to the logics of mestizaje (racial-mixing) and blanqueamiento (whitening). The polemic force of RWB has been helpful for cutting through the baited promises of the anti-Black world, and the theories of liberation offered by various fields (e.g., Marxists, feminists, psychoanalysts, cultural theorists). In engaging RWB, I find myself constantly analyzing how all narratives of redemption, even when proposed by our most radical allies, are usually seeking to make the anti-Black world more hospitable rather than trying to end this world because of its unethicality. In considering the tools Black iconoclasm might offer, I find myself contemplating Wilderson’s refusal to offer a roadmap to freedom and contemplation of what it means “to say we must be free of [our epistemic] air, while admitting to knowing no other source of breath” in the epilogue of RWB.
Which two books published in the last five years would you recommend to BAR readers? How do you envision engaging these works in your future scholarship?
It is tough to pick, but I have to say David Marriott’s Whither Fanon? and Louis M. Maraj’s Black or Right. I am grateful for how Whither Fanon? completely undid what I thought I knew about Fanon, how it dared to challenge the presumed authorities on how we should interpret Fanon. Marriott’s emphasis on Fanonian invention, on taking a leap toward something “radically unwritten” that cannot be reduced to humanism, helped me consider Fanon’s allergy to telos in relation to some of my favorite authors. For example, Whither Fanon? launches important critiques of Wynter’s approach to Fanon’s sociogeny and new humanism while also offering a nuanced challenge to the interpretations of Fanon featured in both Sexton’s afropessimist and Moten’s Black mysticist approach. Maraj’s Black or Right similarly unsettled how I approach the intersection of rhetorical theory and the Black radical tradition. I draw on Maraj’s theory of “deep rhetorical ecologies,” for instance, approaching Black Lives Matter as a network of interconnected meanings that are constructed through ever-evolving rhetorical situations and communicative practices across popular culture. This approach has allowed me to really consider all the bodies, rituals of protest, and political trajectories coalescing around the movement against this desire for a universal image of BLM. Furthermore, Maraj’s notion of Black rhetorical reclamation, which “culls Black histories, temporalities, languages, and literacies as Black invention,” has been helpful for thinking about Black iconoclasm as a ritual process that can disrupt various anti-Black rhetorical ecologies. Black or Right has helped me consider how one mobilizes the demand for the end of the world within the realm of lived experience and everyday habits as I complete my dissertation, Rhetorics of Complete Disorder in Post-Ferguson America. Ultimately, beyond these specific books, I would recommend that BAR readers search for texts that potentially challenge their current ideas or methods of analysis. Step out of your comfort zone, be open to new ways of thinking, to being wrong. It’s not about who’s right. It’s about genuinely committing to a life-long, messy, non-linear, process that will inevitably be riddled with failures.
Roberto Sirvent is editor of the Black Agenda Report Book Forum.