Not nearly a review of Ontologicial Terror: Blackness, Nihilism, and Emancipation by Calvin L. Warren
many ancestors scream inside my head, they are not dead.
their wails haunt my dreams, but these dreams of mine are worth nothing for i am dead.
It has been particularly difficult to think about the question of being, or, at least, to theorize it from the position of South Africa. Here things are buried but they do not die, they inhabit rondavels and are summoned through the burning of incense. They return through dreams demanding rituals. A goat is sacrificed and hung on a tree. Beer is brewed and chickens are slaughtered. We smear our faces with blood and bile, another kind of sacrifice. A sacrifice to please the dead who refuse to die, those who insist on living. There in the mountains I can point at the graves of the ancestors, trace the lineage of my surname and I know all too well where my umbilical cord was buried. The ground knows me. I know all the birds by name; uncede, impangela, inkonjane nokhozi lwentaba. I still have access to the womb, albeit limited. This is the place from which I want to think about blackness, being and nothingness. This is the place I have to begin theorizing from, at least if the work of thinking is not only to strive to understand the universal but also the importance of the particular.
I want to think along with a book by Calvin L. Warren titled Ontological Terror. This is not necessarily a review but a weird remembering, searching, making sense and assuming. A review is interested in the text (style, content and merit) here I am interested in much more than that. I am in interested in where I can go with the book, the places, spaces and time which it can accompany me to. I am curious of how far we can walk together and whether it can carry me when I am tired. Whether the text can guide me when I can no longer see, translate for me when I can no longer understand. The book had to cross the many bloody (deadly) seas to reach the remote Kwa-Zulu-Natal village called Mndozo from which I am writing from. It is written by a professor in American Studies who has interests in Continental Philosophy (particularly post-Heideggerian and nihilistic philosophy), Lacanian psychoanalysis, queer theory, Black Philosophy, Afro-pessimism, and theology.Accessed. He is a scholar in the black radical tradition, a tradition that I also locate myself in. This is important because it suggests that there is what he is
not that I also am not. There is a common truth that we know or should know; we are bound by something.
Ontological Terror is an enquiry around the ongoing debate around blackness and being. The text is interested in the positionality of black people in the metaphysical world. The text interrogates what it means to be a black
being in the world. It is the answer to this question that is most terrifying. This terror for Warren is the ‘terror of inhabiting existence outside of the precincts of humanity and its humanism.’Warren, C. L. (2018). Ontological terror: Blackness, nihilism, and emancipation. Introduction No doubt that Warren is thinking with the afro-pessimists who have used the work of Orlando Patterson, Frantz Fanon and Saidiya Hartman to create this school of thought. According to afro-pessimists black people exist in a state of social death. They experience violence (unwarranted), dishonour and are constantly alienated. This happens as a result of anti-blackness, black people therefore do not inhabit the same zone as other groups which are non-black. They exist in a different paradigm, what Fanon called the zone of non-being.Frantz Fanon (1988) Black Skin, White. The book is also anchored by the ideas of Martin Heidegger who wrote extensively on Being. It is through working with and against Heidegger that the book explores Being in relation to black people. Warren posits that black thinking must and should in fact return to the question of Being and the relation between this kind of question and the anti-black violence that constitutes the world.Warren, C. L. (2018). Ontological terror: Blackness, nihilism, and emancipation. pg 6
I leave my village in Kwa-Zulu Natal to go study in university. I find a different kind of knowing and learning. Here I also find that I am black, a painful and traumatically heavy discovery. I smash my head against the surface and fiercely fight to escape this entrapment. In this place I am forced to swallow aloes, chew stones and breathe in thorny air. I am like a fly against the window, I might die here. I fight, smashing my head against the transparent farce of freedom, a better life and success. I realize that I am in a den of darkness. I look at my hands and see nothing. I stomp my feet and hear worries, open my mouth and it foams; silencing me. My mind tells me to surrender for it knows what I know, there is no fire escape. I will burn ’til I am ash. I was swept by the wind to a place called never go, where history trembles and nothing remembers. Things moving nowhere and everywhere, an interminable fall as Fred Moten would suggest.Moten, Fred (2008) “The Case of Blackness,” Criticism: Vol. 50 : Iss. 2 , Article 1. Available at: Accessed 5 July 2021 There is no going back because I know too much. I am black
The Black Lives Matter movement started in America after George Zimmerman was acquitted of killing Trayvon Martin.Accessed 1 July 2021 The movement gained popularity on social media and became a worldwide movement of solidarity and justice for people who have experienced years of subjection. While this movement seems progressive Calvin L. Warren questions it. He questions its foundation in a way that wants to suggest or expose it as a reformist movement. He accepts its importance but also highlights its impotence. He questions the ontological grounds which provide for the occasion of such a declaration (Black Lives Matter).Warren, C. L. (2018). Ontological terror: Blackness, nihilism, and emancipation pg. 14
The question he poses is whether the black is a human being, whether or not black (ness) has claim to humanness. If black people cannot claim humanness then on what basis do they say their lives matter?Ibid. Then again if black people can claim humanness why is it that they always have to repeatedly tell the world that their lives matter? Here something is revealed, it is this revelation that we cannot bear but that we also cannot ignore.
Thick in the middle of Joburg unable to escape, not the place but the thing that I have become. My blood boils, rushes up the throat and hugs my tongue, thick as phlegm. It does not stop there. It heads for the head and threatens the nostrils. I am dazed, no strength in me. I fall, knee first then my shoulder. I lie there, unsure whether it is a passage or an alleyway. I am there like a heap of rubbish, too unimportant to be moved or noticed. My body a perfect fit for the landscape. Around me are beer bottles and cigarette butts. Rats rattle, drunks continue their wild chats. I stagger inside, clothes damp from urine. I am not quite sure whose urine it is, perhaps mine. No one notices that my clothes are damp, fine.
I lean against the pool table and scan around for familiar faces. All I need is just one sip of beer then I get my groove back. There at the corner squeezed between chairs I see my friend, Mzoxolo. I wave my hand and dart through the crowd. The music is unrelenting. I get to the table, grab the bottle by the neck, strangle it and gulp. I could have not woken up from that alleyway and the rhythm would not have been disturbed. Another black body would have occupied my position the following night. This points directly to the fungibility of black bodies.Frank B. Wilderson, III (2010) Red, White & Black: Cinema and the Structure of U.S Antagonism. Perhaps what Warren means when he says ‘the world needs the negro in as much as it despises it’.Warren, C. L. (2018). Ontological terror: Blackness, nihilism, and emancipation. pg 28
For Warren the question of being is the most fundamental question and that is why he thinks that we cannot avoid Heidegger. For him confronting Heidegger helps us understand ‘the relation between black suffering and metaphysics, slavery and objectification, anti-blackness and forgetfulness, thinking and remembering’.Warren, C. L. (2018). Ontological terror: Blackness, nihilism, and emancipation pg.54 One wonders whether we can’t understand these questions without going through western philosophical thought. If we cannot then this seems to be some sort of epistemic violence because it means we are incapable of speaking about ourselves without referencing others regardless of whether we agree or disagree them.
For Heidegger the “world wants to know nothing of nothing”.Ibid i According to his concept of Dasein freedom is dependent on avoiding this nothing metaphysically. Calvin Warren posits that this nothing is imposed on blacks such that black people become an embodiment of nothingness (nothing incarnated).Ibid ii What is hated about blacks is this nothingness that gives the world a sort of anxiety. One can say that anti-blackness is anti-nothingness, this in a way responds to the question: why are blacks hated all over the world?
I want to return to that small village but fear that I will never look at those mountains in the same way. Those streams and rivers will represent a perennial blood of black death. I want to return but if I do will my mother still recognize me? I have lost my front teeth and my left eye has become a wound that mothers fleas. My knees have become hard shells for falling, crawling when begging for empty beer bottles and fat from cow heads sold in taxi ranks. My only outfit is a dirty-ANC shirt and a reflector. I am nothing. Just a car guard who has become a pet to the middle class of brunch and sundowners.
If nothing dies who is invited to its funeral?
I will not return. Should my mother come searching for me tell me to hide. No, tell me to smile for she will not recognize me. If I could I would also hide her, and my sister and my brother, my black brother who does not know yet that to the world he is denied. That to the world he is forgotten and it is that very forgetting that sustains it.
Warren in the book shows how these forms of anti-black violence are produced. He uses the work of Oren Ben-Dor to show what the function of the law is: to protect and enforce.Warren, C. L. (2018). Ontological terror: Blackness, nihilism, and emancipation pg 66 But the question that is often not asked is who is protected and against whom is this enforcement. He uses case studies and some case law to arrive at the answer. Here he reaches a conclusion that the essence of the law is anti-blackness.Ibid iii Which is to say the law needs to be anti-black to retain its legitimacy in the world. Warren goes on to speak about freedom and emancipation arguing that the term free black is some sort of an oxymoron.
“The term free black explodes into onomastic absurdity and existential cruelty. This presents an ontic distortion, which conceals the ontological terror undergirding this term”Warren, C. L. (2018). Ontological terror: Blackness, nihilism, and emancipation pg. 87
Throughout the book Calvin Warren successfully does what he sets out to do which is to weaken philosophy and its rigid foundations.Warren, C. L. (2018). Ontological terror: Blackness, nihilism, and emancipation. pg 144 He shows truly the essence of Being and that it cannot be thought of outside of black people regardless of the incessant need to forget or rather, unremember them. The necessary resentment of the black
being just so that the world can make sense.
But wait where from position does Calvin L. Warren theorize from? To whom is he saying all these things to? I am steadily uncaring about who says what when they sit in swiveling chairs and claim to be philosophers. Sometimes their big meaningless words are drenched in dishonesty. They call it theory, critique, arts, culture but have never said anything about Vellie Veggie running through the soccer ground. A panga in his hand, get in his way and he stabs you 6 times; twice when he is in a good mood. What about Mama Zimu with a boven of wood on her head and a sickle in hand just so that there’s the smell of onions, bull brand and baked beans at home. I am steadily uncaring about those who attend symposiums. Their eyes always darting, almost as if their friend fraud is burning them
citing freud to cover their disconnection with —
but still they continue, explaining
others take notes, applaud follows
lies recorded and rewarded
Bra steve with one leg lost in exile still stays in his backroom scraping for his next meal, forgotten. All the while never-beens who’ve never seen scream in lecture halls claiming to know. Even their idea of epistemology is nothing but readjusted regurgitation of western mordenity.
critiquing capital, anti-blackness, colonialism
yet, from their pants to their slang
everything about them stinks ‘white’
to the font on their doors in their detachments of humanities.
rather sit under a bridge and listen to tales of
we once had homes.
|2.||↑||Warren, C. L. (2018). Ontological terror: Blackness, nihilism, and emancipation. Introduction|
|3.||↑||Frantz Fanon (1988) Black Skin, White.|
|4.||↑||Warren, C. L. (2018). Ontological terror: Blackness, nihilism, and emancipation. pg 6|
|5.||↑||Moten, Fred (2008) “The Case of Blackness,” Criticism: Vol. 50 : Iss. 2 , Article 1. Available at: Accessed 5 July 2021|
|6.||↑||Accessed 1 July 2021|
|7.||↑||Warren, C. L. (2018). Ontological terror: Blackness, nihilism, and emancipation pg. 14|
|9.||↑||Frank B. Wilderson, III (2010) Red, White & Black: Cinema and the Structure of U.S Antagonism.|
|10.||↑||Warren, C. L. (2018). Ontological terror: Blackness, nihilism, and emancipation. pg 28|
|11.||↑||Warren, C. L. (2018). Ontological terror: Blackness, nihilism, and emancipation pg.54|
|14.||↑||Warren, C. L. (2018). Ontological terror: Blackness, nihilism, and emancipation pg 66|
|16.||↑||Warren, C. L. (2018). Ontological terror: Blackness, nihilism, and emancipation pg. 87|
|17.||↑||Warren, C. L. (2018). Ontological terror: Blackness, nihilism, and emancipation. pg 144|