A Reimagined Ethical Imagination:
Considering Epistemological Nihilism And Afro-Pessimism
As A Corrective To Ethics Of Hope
César “CJ” Baldelomar, LL.M., J.D.
A. Introduction: Notes on Hope, Ethical Dreams, and Ethicists
Hope is always forward looking; it is an expectation that circumstances will change for the better at some future point in time. On the macrolevel, hope allows vulnerable and marginalized groups to envision a future with less racial and gender injustice and economic inequality, as well as heightened civil rights protections and a healthier, more vibrant community. Indeed, during a 1968 speech in Washington, DC––just two months before his assassination––Martin Luther King, Jr. said: “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.” Accept the daily setbacks inherent in human existence, King urges us, while remaining focused on the goal––on the telos represented by an alternative (presumably “better”) state of being. In his I Have a Dream speech, he says: “The rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together. This is our hope.”
For those concerned with ecological devastation, despite almost five decades of futile talk and inaction, hope in a more sustainable world fuels the fight to protect vulnerable species, preserve forests, and reduce waste and carbon emissions. Back in 1982, physicist Fritjof Capra prophetically stated that “[f]or the first time we have to face the very real threat of extinction of the human race and of all life on this planet.” Among the many threats to life, he cited the mass production of nuclear weapons, the then multi-billion dollar global defense budget, and the various environmental threats enveloping the planet, such as blankets of smog covering cities and the plethora of harmful chemicals found in food, water, and the air. The deterioration of the environment, Capra mentioned, resulted in declining physical and mental health. Has much changed in the almost 40 years since Capra’s work?
And even supposing that this world comes crashing down, some Christians can hang their hope in another world (heaven) or in a future cataclysmic event like the Second Coming, the End Times, or the Rapture. Hope seems to be leading one toward another destination––whether existential, metaphysical, ontological, epistemological, cosmic, or physical. Hope is change for the better. Hope is also a state of being, often inspired by one’s faith in a redeemed world. Indeed, since hope may strengthen resilience amid catastrophe, hope could undoubtedly spark agency for a better world—or at least a world the agents consider better. Hope is the fuel that keeps the engine running toward destination progress––and possibly destination utopia.
But what happens when the fuel (itself a finite resource) runs out, when the needle inside the fuel gauge hovers over empty? What happens when the destination (the telos) turns out, at best, to be even farther than expected or, at worst, totally unreachable and thus illusory? As a thought experiment, this essay argues that to (re)imagine ethics and truly different ethical selves and worlds, hope (as understood by Western minds) should be decentered (although not completely discarded) through the acknowledgement that the world might be meaningless and collectively progressing toward catastrophe at the hands of the world’s most privileged. How different would ethical imagination be if it were to hold hopeful and wishful thinking in tension with a realist stance that takes seriously Afro-pessimism and Latinx hopelessness? Theological or social ethics cannot continue peddling simple hope when billions of humans barely cling on to life, living in daily uncertainty amid deep material and emotional deprivation, and when billions (most forgotten in historical narratives) have already met their ends, their own apocalypse.
Undergoing ethical reimaginations requires undergoing a deep epistemological reorientation via epistemological decapitation––the result of painful introspection, which should lead to fragmentation of long-held views and cherished assumptions of oneself, community, humanity, the Divine, and existence. The possible result of fragmentation: meaninglessness, but perhaps a meaninglessness that could open up imagination to what never was, is, or will be. What is needed is imagination unconstrained by the comforts of hope and thoroughly grounded in the here and now, with little expectation for a better tomorrow. It is an imagination steeped––but not constrained by––hopelessness and even pessimism in the face of personal and social catastrophe. Simply envisioning a “tomorrow”––and surviving another day––is a victory for many.  And not acting could also be a silent victory in the face of hopelessness.
The Ethicist in Context
Often omitted from ethical discussions is the responsibility of the ethicist. Producers of ethical knowledge should exercise care when proposing “solutions” to conundrums, especially to complex or deeply personal quandaries. Accordingly, throughout, this essay discusses how producers of ethical knowledge should acknowledge our own contextual limitations all the while always having an eye toward contributions from other hermeneutical communities. The essay thus assumes ethical contexts as firmly within “lo cotidiano” (the quotidian), which serves as a theoethical locus or habitus. Introduced by mujerista theologian Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz, lo cotidiano privileges ordinary living “as source, provides content, particularizes context, and marks the spaces and place(s) from which Latin@’s do theology,” Carmen M. Nanko-Fernández writes. “Such theologizing [and ethical thinking] avoids abstraction and is admittedly polyvocal and fluid.”
Polyvocality, pluriversity, and fragmentation are the immediate goals: considering every viewpoint––even Western-based idealized abstractions––is essential to eclectic social and personal ethical thinking and (in)action beyond hopeful imagination. Ethical reflection and imagination should avoid flat-out rejections (exclusions) of any viewpoint (even controversial, politically incorrect ones), but ethics should also avoid centering any one narrative as normative and universal. The basic questions in ethical reflection should always be: Whose ethics are under consideration? And what telos does a particular ethical imagination seek, especially when employing hope narratives?
B. Whose “Hopeful” Ethics? Widening Ethical Imagination
In ethics, presuppositions (the starting points) matter. Beginning ethical reflections with the presumption that one’s identity and context are static and even eternal will lead to different considerations from those who understand ethics as responding to shifting and ephemeral positionalities and contexts. One’s religious and ethical sources, and the interpretation of those sources (filtered through one’s epistemic and affective communities, as well as one’s socioeconomic and political persuasions), form a significant portion of one’s ethical imagination, and, by extension, one’s character. Assuming that moral character formation occurs by doing rather than by learning maxims or reciting formulas, any ethical paradigm should consider the characters (and their characteristics) in addition to scenes of instruction and sources. Taken together, characters (those held up as exemplary or not), scenes of instruction (the contexts upon which ethical actions take place and where they are learned or not), and sources (texts, commandments, laws, stories, etc…) constitute the ingredients of any ethical imagination.
In ethics, the end goal (the telos) also matters. One’s expectations of ethical deliberation (outcomes) restrict how one imagines ethics. Consider how any ethical text or idea––which leads to the igniting of ethical imagination in students––is imagined and taught with the assumptions and expectations of a particular teacher, whose own experiences and academic background in turn inform her assumptions and expectations. For example, one of Catholicism’s––indeed, Western civilization’s––most influential moral texts, the Summa Theologica, has “effect only when the full figure is supplied by the teacher’s public anticipation of the coherence and continuity of a divine teaching.” A teacher’s or reader’s assumptions animate the text, which in turn restrict the paths its ethical lessons might take. Reflecting ethically with a predetermined goal is similar to entering an address into a GPS. Teachers of ethics set a common address for students, and even though some students may take different avenues and travel in distinct cars, the end point remains the same. According to Mark Jordan, even with the same unchanged words as the starting point, different readings through the centuries have produced radically different notions of a concept like natural law, prompting Jordan to note that the “same passages are not the same.”
Besides an ideological endpoint, telos also functions temporally. Does the ethical action take place in the future (when the situation is not immediately pressing) or in the present (when it is knocking on one’s doorstep)? Is it one ethical act or a series of acts––with or without interruption? Is ethics imagined on a Eurocentric linear timeline toward some ultimate progress, or is ethics imagined as disparate, perhaps circular acts that might lead to no specific end?
Other questions of purpose surface. For what purpose does one think and act ethically? Are the acts social or personal; does it matter who sees? On a social level, does ethical/moral behavior mean observing purely subjective socio-cultural mores, usually constructed by those in epistemological power (society’s knowledge producers)? Can ethical behavior lead to unethical outcomes? And does ethics apply differently to distinct sectors of society? What is the ethical responsibility of the social ethicist proposing ethical solutions to specific and broad issues? (I will address this last question in the conclusion.)
Decolonial and critical theory scholars remind us to always ask practical questions with theoretical consequences. Questions include: who is producing ethical knowledge (the sources or scripts), which characters are held up to the denigration (or erasure) of others, which scenes of instruction remain privileged to the detriment of other scenes, and what are the political consequences of ethical formation and knowledge? Going further, one may ask whether comprehensive ethical formation is at all possible? Perhaps an honest ethical response is to imagine letting go of long-held ethical paradigms––usually formulated by elite knowledge producers––in favor of piecemeal, fragmented responses to life’s messy situations. In his latest book, Fragments: The Existential Situation of Our Time, David Tracy argues that “[s]trong fragments shatter, fragments negate any closed totality system. In the course of fragmenting all closed totalities, the most powerful fragments also show themselves not as substances but as events and positively open to liminal infinity.”
Of course, to Western-trained minds (including my own), fragmenting knowledge might seem counterintuitive to the taxonomic nature of ethical texts. At the risk of generalizing, there indeed exists a Western obsession with the urge to formulate answers to every conundrum––to the point where responses are often forced, like thrusting puzzle pieces into incongruent voids. Cultural theorist Marcelo Diversi pleads with his readers: “Tell your Western-trained mind to stop looking for details or categories. You do not need them.”
But need and desire are different. While we certainly do not “need” to be analytical and categorical, producers and consumers of ethical knowledge (indeed, any knowledge) tend to imagine ethics within the confines of academic norms. This essay is itself a practice in academic knowledge production, with the expectation that its consumption will be of use to others in the academy and possibly beyond. Academic practice stems from a long genealogy with roots in the scholastic universities of medieval Italy and France (and even before that in great Islamic and monastic centers of learning). As a site of knowledge production, the modern university itself––as heir to a rational, Enlightenment methodology––can restrict ethical imagination, as evident by schools of thoughts and methods particular to universities, such as the Chicago method, or the Harvard way, or the Jesuit pedagogical method. Ethical thinking depends on assumptions put into practice by the producer or the consumer of knowledge within epistemic communities.
That knowledge is contextual, that it shifts according to the intellectual context, might be obvious to some. But that theoethical knowledge, with its vice of conceiving itself as a timeless science, is contextual might be less obvious. Indeed, because of Christian theology’s theorizing on the Divine (theology) and on humanity’s relationship to the Divine and to each other (ethics) for almost two millennia, the discipline might be especially prone to the vice of conceptualizing its knowledge as transcendent, universal, and teleological.
Methodologies of Fragmentation: Decolonial Thought, Epistemologies of the South, and Queer Theology
Yet a claim to universality should be debunked by applying a decolonial lens. Upenyu S. Majee and Susanne B. Ress define a decolonial methodology as one that “allows for the systematic interrogation of the global asymmetries that constituted imperial power by challenging longstanding Euro-American claims to a universal, neutral, objective, and disembodied epistemology.” Central to a decolonial methodology is a hermeneutics of suspicion, that is, an interpretive lens that does not readily assume the validity of any proposals for meaning making, especially when such meaning making elevates some meanings to the denigration of others often excluded.
Epistemologies of the South should also temper theoethical vices (or fantasies) of orderly, universal maxims. Boaventura de Sousa Santos argues that “epistemologies of the South deal with knowledges present in or emerging from the resistance to and the struggle against oppression, knowledges that are … embodied in concrete bodies, whether collective or individual.” These epistemologies take seriously embodied existence, not for its categorical use in an academic theoethical exercise that seeks to formulate some principles, but as crucial precisely because bodies exist in a particular place and time. They also serve as a consistent reminder that other bodies have been killed, forgotten and disposed as meaningless shells of once-expendable humans.
Epistemologies of the South accordingly focus on “nonexistent knowledges, deemed as such either because they are not produced according to accepted or even intelligible methodologies or because they are produced by absent subjects, subjects deemed incapable of producing valid knowledge due to their subhuman condition or nature.” Epistemologies of the South search for unauthorized knowledges and imaginations, for those thoughts and nuggets of wisdom not sanctioned by secular or religious police powers.
One example of this form of knowledge is queer theology, introduced and pioneered by Marcella Althaus-Reid in her books The Queer God and Indecent Theology. By placing queer subjects—queer bodies—at the center of theoethical knowledge production and consumption (and yet ensuring that their scripts remain elusive and shifty), Althaus-Reid sought to expand the canvass of theoethical reflection by working toward a “new theological epistemological break.” Althaus-Reid includes as subjects of ethical production and formation those ignored or shamed by authorized, “decent” theoethical imagination: women lemon vendors without underwear, or theologians who danced the night away at seedy gay clubs, or sex workers shamed (and yet desired) by normative societal gazes. While queer theology remains marginal in the academy, there is no doubt that Althaus-Reid and her intellectual progeny have broadened theoethics for many within and outside the academy, including me.
Theoethics should seek to include as many voices as possible, especially unorthodox ones. If ethics takes excluded voices as its starting point, the possibilities for character formation become endless. On the academic side, the politics of citation––who one cites and why––matters, especially if the scholar is also a teacher. Teachers, as noted earlier, activate meaning for students. Attentive students take note of whom the teacher cites in the syllabus and in her work. A teacher seeking to expand ethical pallets will acknowledge the limitations inherent in her textual selections and will avoid token representations of “scholars of color” or women or queer theorists. At the same time, the teacher should exercise caution by not limiting her texts to scholars from one particular racial or gender group––for that would reify the practice of exclusion and set a bad example to students. Again, theoethical reflection is about qualified inclusion and the concoction of eclectic ethical brews from several ingredients never before mixed. Fragmenting and mixing: that is how ethical imagination can best disrupt and resist claims to ideological and ontological purity––that is, fantasies of universal maxims.
Yet, the epistemologies of the South must themselves undergo decolonial scrutiny. It appears De Sousa Santos believes in change, progress, and liberation. Might his vision be too utopian, just another narrative of hope? How about we introduce some new ingredients into this evolving ethical paella? How would mixing in ingredients usually dismissed in theoethical narratives of hope change its flavor? Enter Afro-pessimism and Latinx hopelessness as necessary to a broader theoethical recipe of imagination––to a constantly evolving and shifting ethics. I envision an ethics that resists finalized proposals or fantasies of solving enduring ethical dilemmas once and for all.
C. Mixing in Some More Ingredients: Afro-Pessimism and Latinx Hopelessness
In my years as a student of Christian (specifically Catholic) ethics, and as a frequent attendee at lectures and conference presentations on ethics, I often see ethicists tout “African cosmology” as a viable source of non-Western ethical wisdom. African cosmology, these ethicists argue, can provide much-needed insight into humanity’s connection to each other, the natural world, all living beings, the cosmos, and the Divine. Ethicists employ the seemingly ubiquitous term “ubuntu” to capture African cosmology’s insistence on human-nature interconnectivity and interdependence. Agbonkhianmeghe Orobator, for example, explains that “the human person and the cosmos have a vital connection.” Such connection should lead to a concern with holistic well-being––that is, concern for the vitality of the community and all its living creatures, as well as for the natural environment. Ultimately, for Orobator, African worldviews should lead to “an understanding of life that is expansive and inclusive” and that “encompasses the universe of plants, animals, and nature.”
Similarly, in Resurrection Song, Flora Wilson Bridges presents African cosmology and spirituality as unified around these themes: the universe is profoundly spiritual; heaven and earth are not separate; the universe is circular and moral, justice balances relationships; and time is circular or continuous, without discreet moments. She also notes that the unified African worldview “led people toward a spiritual definition of the self as self-in-community.” She then applies this African understanding of self-in-community to the African American struggle for freedom in their everyday existence.
Both Orobator and Bridges assume that Black peoples are “humans” who, through enslavement and subsequent racist ideologies and policies, suffer from a degraded (a subhuman) status that African (from Africa) worldviews ultimately negate. Indeed, African cosmology and spirituality––neatly packaged by scholars for the consumption of Western categorical minds––present the depth and dignity of African peoples. Western and Christian ethics can learn from African cosmology––so the reasoning goes.
But seldom have I seen, heard or read Christian ethicists engage with pessimistic voices. In fact, in Christian ethics circles, I do not think I have ever heard mention of Afro-pessimism, much less of the prospect of ontological nonexistence for Blacks. Why place so much emphasis on ubuntu and other African concepts when Black thinkers in the United States have developed a sophisticated critique of the dominant hope narratives employed by ethicists and politicians? From Orlando Patterson to Derrick Bell to present Afro-pessimists (some of which this essay discusses), US Black social critics have asked whether Blacks can have life in an anti-Black world. The new generation goes as far as asking: “is the Black, in fact, a human being? Or can blackness ground itself in the being of the human?” Whereas Orobator and Bridges de facto assume blackness as human, thinkers like Calvin Warren, Frank Wilderson III, Steven Finley, and Biko Mandela Gray assume that blackness equals nonexistence, a non-human (as opposed to sub-human) status. For Afro-pessimists (especially Warren and Wilderson), therefore, hope for a just world of racial equality through social and political action is but a liberal fantasy spurred by linear notions of time and progress, by faulty anthropological assumptions, and by limited (Western) ethical imagination.
On the Uses of Pessimism Generally
I suggest that Christian ethicists should introduce pessimism as an antidote to social and self-deception. In the Uses of Pessimism, Roger Scruton notes that human attempts to predict and control the future for human advantage is pure folly––a collective irrationality (and even delusion) that continues to plague even the most “advanced” civilizations. Scruton, however, acknowledges that disrupting the “collective unreason” of hope in a utopian future is a futile exercise. “You may enjoy [the book] and agree with it, but it will have no influence whatsoever on those whom it calls to account,” states Scruton. “The irrationalities that I explore are … ‘hard-wired’ in the human cortex, and not to be countered by anything as gentle as an argument.”
Telos sustains the ideal of socio-political progress; a goal entails an ideal of what will be, of what one is aiming for, even if that goal is not initially clear. Thus, notions of progress depend on various teleological ideals for organizing society: communism, capitalism, commune-living, a world of pure equality and justice, or any of the other multiple failed utopian social and political experiments undertaken by human communities throughout history. But once reality unfolds, even social-justice-focused social and political groups seem to succumb to greed, corruption, and the use of violent military repression to quell dissidents.
An example that hits home comes to mind: the Nicaraguan revolution. In 1979, the Sandinistas, led by Daniel Ortega, toppled the US-backed Somoza regime with the promise of a Nicaragua that would place liberation theology ideals at the center, including the redistribution of wealth to benefit “oppressed” peasants and the end of state-sanctioned repression and corruption. Fast forward to today. Not only is Ortega still in power (he even appointed his wife vice president), but his wealth is well into the millions, his national guard has killed and tortured countless dissidents, and the Nicaraguan people still find themselves in dire economic straits. A dream-turned-nightmare. I wonder if perhaps that is what collective populations need to wake up to reality. Examples of failed state utopias abound, including the United States—a point explored below. Pessimism could serve, then, as an antidote to social deception, to empty rhetorical promises of some future constructed around liberal social-justice principles or the common good.
Afro-Pessimism: Tempering White Liberal Fantasies
Wholesale progress, especially social progress, is a fantasy––but a fantasy with negative consequences, nonetheless. Frank Wilderson notes, “In its critique of social movements, Afro-Pessimism argues that blacks do not function as political subjects….” Instead, all sorts of political sectors mobilize Blacks to achieve other ends, such as the nomination of politicians who might even hold interests adverse to Black communities. Each and every political campaign is fueled by hope, by some ideal goals. What happens when “politician A” reaches her goals through her policies? Has utopia come true? Or should “politician A” wisely anticipate setbacks to her agenda, whether through future legislation, legal maneuvering, or lackluster implementation––or a combination of all three? Should not “politician A” divulge these setbacks to her supporters so that can they strategically prepare?
Collective belief in hope is a powerful political tool, whether employed for perceived rollbacks or progress. Hope preys on desires for a world not yet here. But any action in the real world––even actions geared toward “justice”––can never fully satisfy all within marginalized communities. Joseph Winters, in his summary of W.E.B. Du Bois’ essay “Of the Meaning of Progress,” underscores Du Bois’ tempered view of progress, especially market-based progress that measures success in terms of new structures, technological innovation, and expansive economic choices for producers and consumers. Winters writes that “progress actually relies on the isolation of certain communities, the unequal distribution of resources, the maintenance of harmful power relationships, and the often-slow elimination of beings, objects, and ways of life that stand in the way of progress.” Progress, according to Du Bois, refuses to look back to acknowledge those lost on the path toward utopia. And progress rhetoric does not allow for discussions of setbacks, suffering, pain, death, and pessimism. Social and economic progress relies on a manifest-destiny-like vision of what a particular community deserves (usually to the exclusion of other communities). Progress also depends on masculine rhetoric of striving for and shaping the world at all costs. Any questioning or tempering of this vision and rhetoric can result in social death within the community––a costly prospect for those who depend on the community for spiritual sustenance, financial security, and identity formation.
Yet Afro-Pessimism demands that courageous community members temper hope by resisting to be used or mobilized for political projects that seek to “uplift” the masses but that ultimately benefit the state and its elite citizens. Winters argues that Du Bois’ reflections “show that black American strivings for a better future must be informed, shaped, and haunted by the memories of loss, neglect, alienation, exploitation, and suffering.” These memories, in turn, should open up spaces for pessimism and melancholia––a type of suffering that does not leave room for redemption. Pessimism sees existing political states as incapable of changing their dominant socioeconomic paradigms to benefit those upon whom the states were built. The state’s redemption, in other words, is impossible, especially if its redemption is for the benefit of those who matter negatively.
What do I mean “matter negatively”? At first blush, dear reader, you might be thinking that everyone matters, or even that no one can matter negatively. Does not mattering mean that one is important to someone else? In their essay “God Is a White Racist,” Stephen Finley and Biko Mandela Gray tell us that “mattering is a question of where and how someone shows up, how something appears within the context of collective human existence.” To matter is to show up in a set of relationships––“so much so that the erasure, exclusion, or elimination of something is still a form of mattering.” Black lives matter negatively, according to Finley and Gray, precisely because an anti-Black world and its nation-states require the erasure, exclusion, and destruction of Black bodies in order to provide meaning to non-Black bodies and their vision of the world. Black bodies are fungible and disposable, useful only for the physical (and I add, entertainment) value that they provide to the non-Black world. Throughout US history, Black bodies have served as fodder for the city on a hill’s construction, expansion, and survival. Finley and Gray argue that the state functions as a god, “who, as ultimate arbiter of guilt or innocence, wields the near-absolute power and authority to do imminent harm to Africana peoples.” To the current state, Black life matters negatively, “emerging as always already guilty in the eyes of a state that sanctions Black death as necessary to the maintenance of social order––in other words, as a theodicy or defense of the goodness and sanctity of the state….” They have in mind the many Black males (and females) shot by police throughout the US during the past decade. The state uses their existences to mark and display its arbitrary power in the name of law and order.
Warren echoes Finley and Gray. He claims that Blacks have undergone a “metaphysical holocaust––the systematic concealment, descent, and withholding of blackness through technologies of terror, violence, and abjection.” This metaphysical holocaust, in turn, has led to Blacks’ facing ontological terror––the “systemic destruction of a spirit, a soul, a psyche.” With such comprehensive ontological destruction and erasure of Black peoples, how can social progress––a future of equality––ever be possible within the confines of a White liberal order? Wilderson asserts that imbuing “state violence with a temporal finitude” is extremely problematic. For him and for other Afro-Pessimists, state violence against Black bodies is necessary to state existence; the violence is therefore inevitable. Indeed, “[h]uman life is dependent on Black death for existence and for its conceptual coherence,” Wilderson writes. “There is no world without Blacks, yet there are no Blacks who are in the world.”
Afro-Pessimism insists that blackness is coterminous with Slaveness; Blacks entered Western legal and anthropological consciousness as fungible chattel and remain so. Since Blacks entered the Western imagination as property, and since the state continues to treat Blacks as disposable physical property (useful only for the state to demonstrate its disciplinary power or for consumer culture to entertain the masses through sports), Blacks have always been and remain absent from the “spatiotemporal structure of narrative.” Blacks do not exist as humans in contemporary narratives, Wilderson claims, for they lack narratives structured around their humanity. Their absence of humanity leads to “no mutual futurity into which Blacks and others will find themselves” on an equal plane. True social change is therefore impossible. “Continuing to keep hope that freedom will occur, that one day the world will apologize for its antiblack brutality and accept us with open arms,” Warren writes, “is a devastating fantasy.”
Afro-Pessimism offers a devastating critique to the liberal-humanist (Christian) ethical logic that Blacks can find true freedom from social, economic, and racial inequality through political, social, and legal means. After all, if the state controls political, social, and legal action, and if the state depends on blackness negatively mattering (if blackness matters at all), why would true social change or progress come via those same state mechanisms? Warren bluntly states: “The fantasy of equality and the humanist imagination can dream about a world of freedom, justice, and equality, but it must continually disavow the nightmare of the metaphysical holocaust, which continues.” The inconvenient truth that Afro-Pessimists attempt to divulge is that Black bodies matter only for their raw production, just as they did during slavery. Blacks do not matter as intellectual subjects with their own narratives and imaginations; they are objects that the state and society use for its own purposes, with many Blacks unknowingly participating in their own objectification for consumption by the White gaze.
So what is the solution, if any? According to Finley and Gray, deconstructing dominant national (state) mythical narratives and symbols in order to free up imagination is one way. But another is “affirming that the current system must be razed in order for a new mode of social being to be collectively developed and maintained.” Finley and Gray are not ready to concede, as are Warren and Wilderson, that change is implausible. Yet by asking to raze the entire current system, Finley and Gray perhaps fail to acknowledge the epistemological and ontological constraints on any imaginations or fantasies of future systems. Razing the current system is as utopian as the prospect of achieving equality and freedom for all within the modern state. Radical Afro-Pessimists push us to reconsider notions of progress and equality within current epistemological and ontological paradigms. Collective imagination, they say, is too infected with narratives that have no place for Black contributions or actions. Perhaps the only thing left is to open spaces for grieving at the realization that some bodies only matter negatively, if they matter at all. Different ethical and social paradigms could emerge by simply allowing grief to take flight.
One glaring omission of Afro-Pessimists is their non-discussion of the invisibility of undocumented immigrants in the US, and of non-European immigrants who remain stateless. In his controversial chapter “F*ck It,” Miguel De La Torre calls for racial dialogues beyond the Black/White binary. He focuses on Latinx immigrants in the US, noting how they are invisible and therefore subject to legal abuse and death. Immigrants and migrants are especially vulnerable to trafficking for sex and labor, or to physical, emotional, and mental abuse at the hands of their bosses (read: owners). Since migrants avoid law enforcement at all costs (due to their status and mistrust of law enforcement), they must put up with their nightmares in silence. And why would migrants seek law enforcement when “on average, between 2005 and 2012, one border agent was arrested each and every day for misconduct.” In addition, all around the US, Latinx immigrants and citizens face the threat of legal and communal harassment and of unlawful detention amid suspicions of drug dealing, stealing, raping, and overall illegality. Legal scholar David A. Harris notes that many Latinos even use the initials DWB (driving while brown) to refer to the unfair treatment they receive from law enforcement and others in the community while undertaking what to most of us would be a mundane activity. This unfair and disparate treatment often results in Latinx peoples finding themselves at the mercy of the vast prison-immigration industrial complex.
From the time Latinos set foot on the nation’s school grounds to the time they enter the workforce, many Latinos are aware of their place within the nation’s socioeconomic and cultural hierarchy. The dominant discourse classifies Latinx peoples as second-class citizens, as border crossers––neither from here nor there, always residing on or near physical and metaphysical borders. De La Torre explains that “Latina/os living on the borders in the United States are disjointed from the culture of their heritage and the culture in which they reside, outsiders and foreigners to both.” Consequently, it is not surprising that Latinos––especially those who arrived in the US as young children or who are first-generation US citizens––experience deep conflicts regarding their identities. “Am I American? Am I Nicaraguan? Or Am I whatever ethnic group is dominant within my community?” The competing dominant and internal narratives might create a disjointed sense of self, a broken identity, which could in turn result in self-loathing and the placing of whiteness and White cultural hegemony on a higher plane of desirability. “The marginalized often shape themselves in the image of the dominant culture,” De La Torre writes, “learning to mimic the attitudes, beliefs, behaviors, and actions they have been taught to see as superior.” De La Torre unapologetically comments that resistance is futile in the face of ideological systems that seek to survive at all costs: “dismantling these eco-political structures is truly hopeless.”
If the system depends on the wholesale destruction of both Black and Brown (and queer) bodies to sustain itself, perhaps one viable ethical response is to challenge prevailing notions of hope––whether secular or religious––by embracing epistemological nihilism. Dislodging ethical imagination from the very secular and religious structures that depend on Black and Brown bodies mattering negatively is no easy feat. Just as redemption by the state is impossible, so too is redemption solely within a Christian-capitalistic-liberal framework a fantasy that should be deconstructed and decentered before others continue to fall prey to restricted ethical imaginations based on hope in what is perhaps already a hopeless world to many.
D. A Suggestion: Toward Nihilism
This essay has explored certain strands of Afro-Pessimism and only briefly aspects of Latinx hopelessness as possible alternatives to dominant secular and religious narratives of hope, which do inform ethical imagination. I am not arguing for churches or civil-rights leaders to discard narratives of hope in the face of seemingly insurmountable personal and social catastrophe. But I do think it is necessary to take seriously narratives of hopelessness amid irredeemable social and structural suffering and loss. Churches and secular society should open spaces for individuals to engage in honest conversations about the present and future, especially when the present (and past) makes cheerful thoughts about the future absurd.
Spaces of grief and melancholia over how racial and other hierarchical dynamics shape identity must also open within the academy and church. These spaces are not meant to help others “cope” with reality; they should instead serve a cathartic purpose. One cathartic purpose––and the one central to this essay––is epistemological reorientation. Ethicists who seek to inform ethical subjects must themselves undergo a comprehensive epistemological death before they allow new imaginations and broader circles of truth to surface. As Joan Didion notes in the preface to her collection of essays Slouching Towards Bethlehem, “If I was to work again at all, it would be necessary for me to come to terms with disorder.” If ethics is to speak to a new generation that no longer accepts dreams of a rainbow-painted, cheerful future, it must come to terms with the disorder––the chaos––that underwrites law and order and fantasies of secular and religious metanarratives of hope.
When writing, Gloria Anzaldúa thinks about how the moon illuminates her house. In Aztec religion, Coyolxauhqui represents the moon. Coyolxauhqui led her brothers in an attack against her mother, Coatlicue, whose miraculous pregnancy (via an inseminated feather) brought embarrassment to the family. The attack was thwarted by Coatlicue’s baby, who emerged a grown man from her womb as the legion was moving in on Coatlicue. Huitzilopochtli decapitated Coyolxauhqui and threw her body down the side of Coatepec (serpent mountain); her body fractured into pieces as it tumbled down the mountain’s side. Coyolxauhqui’s body littered the mountain. “I envision her muerta y decapitada (dead and decapitated), una cabeza con los parados cerrados (eyes closed),” Anzaldúa says. “Writing is a process of discovery and perception that produces knowledge and conocimiento (insight).” In a similar vein, unlearning what one has learned in order to expand one’s circles of truths requires a sort of death: a decapitation of one’s epistemology and ontology as learned from Western knowledge and belief systems. Anzaldúa calls this the “Coyolxauhqui imperative,” which is “the act of calling back those pieces of the self/soul that have been dispersed or lost, the act of mourning the losses that haunt us.” The Coyolxauhqui imperative requires a “new theological epistemological break”––what Ray Hart calls “unbecoming.” As mentioned, such break, such unbecoming, is painful: “A person’s unbecoming is both a doing and a knowing, but a painful and arduous doing and knowing, because requiring self-conscious adjustments to ways of ordinary knowing and doing.”
Given our pluralistic context, the unbecoming of the idealized subject within a totalizing Western paradigm is not only necessary, but ethically required if other knowledges (from the wretched of the earth, from the borderlands) are to inform the multiple ways of being human today. Through the realization of “unbecoming, imagination fixes upon the range of what is unfinished in human being.” Simply put, dislocating subjects from a fixed imaginary frees subjects to envision new characters and new scenes of instruction that are informed by the multiplicity of human experiences across time and space. These scenes and the characters who inhabit them present a new moment for the ethical formation of subjects from across contexts.
Dislodging epistemology and ontology from Western paradigms (especially ethical ones) is nonetheless a daunting task. In proposing to decenter long-held views and narratives (particularly of hope), I propose tentatively embracing epistemological nihilism. Epistemological nihilism seeks to redress the epistemological and ontological violence caused by simplistic ethical scenes of instruction and the characters held up as normative by theological and political police powers. According to Leo Luks, “nihilism is the logical outcome of the end of Western metaphysics.” By metaphysics, Luks is thinking of speculative metaphysics, that is, “thinking of the sort that attempts to consider the entirety of being as a single system, from a single foundation, and deems it possible to provide an answer to the question what is being as a whole?” Further, and perhaps in line with Afro-Pessimist thought, Gianni Vattimo argues that nihilism cannot be overcome and so should be accepted. Truth with a capital “T” presumes some unified concept that remains valid across time and space for all peoples. But, as already noted, all knowledge is always contextual. It stems from the imaginations of particular peoples living in particular times and places, and trained in particular universities and methods. In a post-metaphysical intellectual climate, what remains are fragments of knowledge; each fragment (or configuration of fragments) should be questioned, especially when said fragments are attempting to dictate how societies should operate or how one should be in the world.
Nihilism tends to evoke deeply negative feelings, especially in a religious context. How can there be no meaning in a world created by God and redeemed by Jesus, is the common counter. Nihilism––that pesky possibility that nothing has inherent meaning––can be a useful anecdote to the rehashed prospects of some future hope for a utopia of pure ideals (whether liberal or conservative) that purport to have inherent meaning for all at some point in time. In the words of abolitionist Wendell Phillips, “Nihilism is the righteous and honorable resistance of a people crushed under an iron rule. Nihilism is evidence of life … the last weapon of victims choked and manacled beyond all other resistance.”
Indeed, Nolen Gertz, following Nietzsche, identifies two forms of nihilism: active and passive. On the one hand, the former seeks to “destroy the present to create the future, to destroy the destructive ideals of the present in order to create new ideals and bring about the future that we want.” Passive nihilism, on the other hand, entails completely retreating from any impulse to steer public discussion or morals in order to allow the present to unfold, even if it means the destruction of others or society. Passive nihilism might find theological parallels in apophatic (or negative) theology, which urges silence and retreat when considering the Divine or even human agency. Nihilism is not synonymous with pessimism or cynicism, though a nihilist may definitely hold pessimist or cynical views. Perhaps nihilism can force a fundamental rethinking of whether there is a future worth striving for in the first place.
Active nihilism can be very useful to those excluded from ethical imagination and even from humanhood. Instead of privileging what Nietzsche saw as Christianity’s life-denying impulses for an afterlife where all will be made just and right, or the secular state’s supposed progress toward equality and freedom for all, active nihilism demands that one honestly acknowledge and confront the incessant violence undergirding human existence. M. Shawn Copeland reminds us that “[w]e owe all that we have to our exploitation and enslavement, removal and extermination of the despised others.” Reinhold Niebuhr also exclaims that “all human life is involved in the sin of seeking security at the expense of other life.” Life depends on the death of other beings––whether human or non-human animals. Without sacrificial flesh and blood, life cannot go on. Nihilism calls us to task, to confront how things have been, are currently, and will be without the pretenses of false hope or the social or personal delusion of a better world. Nihilism can thus rupture what creates meaning (narratives) and what holds subjects and objects in place (scripts) to enact that meaning. The death of stagnant imaginations and narratives is an essential step before moving on to imagining and creating other worlds, identities, and scripts. Out of death emerges new life. And this is precisely what ethics should acknowledge.
Epistemological nihilism embraces the eschaton. To acknowledge that the world might be meaningless (in the face of dominant narratives) is to acknowledge that humans themselves assign the world meaning through their imaginations, which evolve into myths and symbols that later form a narrative logic around which civilizations coalesce. Finley and Gray note that the US operates in “bad faith and is able to perpetuate a narrative of innocence, equality, and fundamental fairness contrary to its history….” Nihilism allows one to see any narrative as the product of pure imagination instead of something divinely ordained. In demystifying any narrative, nihilists pierce through any sacrosanct veils to reveal contradictory actions and empty rhetorical deployments. And in deconstructing and destroying ideas, imaginations, and narratives, nihilists precipitate the end of the epistemological and ontological myths holding the world together to the benefit of a few. In effect, nihilism indeed calls for the end of the world as understood through the narrative logics that emerged from the powerful matrix of Christendom and empire (god and mammon) many centuries ago.
Post-metaphysical ethics and theoethics, then, is open to constant speculation, approximations, paradoxes, ambiguity, and ongoing revision. No word or world is ever final, no imagination is ever the “one.” A bricolage of imaginations, of fragments from particular lived experiences is what constitutes a post-metaphysical theoethics. For some, hopelessness is all they can fathom after intergenerational traumas or in the face of incessant human brutality throughout history but that continues in the present. “Hopelessness is an act of courage to embrace reality,” De La Torre states, “and to act even when the odds are in favor of defeat.” Passive nihilism, however, also requires the virtue of self-discipline (though it can often be mistaken as escapism or simple passivism). To not act when one’s scripted identity requires one to act is itself a form of resistance. For example, if one is Black or queer (or both), society expects one to speak up against any ongoing racial or sexual injustice. One’s role is as social-justice warrior. But cannot resistance to injustice also entail not acting when one is cued by scriptwriters? What does a “silent poetry in the midst of this world’s political chatter” look like, anyway? If an effective theoethical imagination is an eclectic brew of fragments, what about those bodies or imaginations that refuse emplotment in any narratives? Epistemologies of the South, you will recall, call for turning absent subjects into present ones. Yet Afro-Pessimists insist that Blacks cannot ever be subjects within dominant narratives. Blackness equals non-existence, and as non-existent objects that only matter negatively, can Blacks truly enter theoethical narratives as moral subjects in formation? It is not enough to remember communities and peoples who have already met their end times, since remembering can easily turn into romanticizing and eventually forgetting. Nihilism calls for a hopelessness that may (or may not) perhaps be overcome only when collective populations begin to understand the relativity of all knowledge, values, and morals that have and continue to order Western-liberal societies.
E. Tentative Closing Thoughts: Silence Amid Not Mattering
During the Ingersoll Lecture at Harvard, Toni Morrison identified various forms of “goodness,” with one as a form of narcissism, as ego enhancement. Indeed, true goodness––as a response to evil––does not always win. Biko Mandela Gray writes, “Evil is loud and captures our attention––it is a spectacle.” Goodness is usually lurking backstage, trying to surface at various moments, but authentic (non-narcissistic) goodness is never as loud as evil. In fact, goodness is silent and will manifest within individuals who have undergone intense and serious introspection––a dark night of the soul and mind, what I have called here an epistemological decapitation. Through “our attention to the silent nature of goodness, we create possibilities for no longer silencing it, encouraging it to speak and no longer bite its tongue.” Perhaps it is time to be silent about the Divine, ethics, and morality––and allow goodness to emerge from its backstage role. Good intentions can pave the way to hell. Embracing meaningless––meaning letting go of epistemological and ontological “roots”––can kickstart a fresh imagination that will actually allow goodness to speak. And maybe even louder than evil, for once.
In that vein, the ethical ethicist perhaps needs to learn silence. Allowing others to speak from their lived experience of the mundane will hopefully expose ethics itself as a problematic discipline insofar as it attempts to categorize and ontologize all human experience in order to offer neat rules and maxims. Ethical imagination should be collective and always unsteady, reflecting the constant on-the-move, borderlands-survival existence of populations that matter negatively. Lo cotidiano matters, for it informs how people see the world and themselves and how they act. Since it is impossible to catalogue everyone’s experience for later theoethical reflection, lo cotidiano should remain elusive to academic and other consumerist ventures. Ultimately, diverse experiences––especially the experiences of those who matter negatively––offer a glimpse of “what is already available as well as a hint of the endless possibilities open to creative as well as practical imaginations.”
Tentatively embracing nihilism, though a scary and difficult prospect, can help prevent future paralyzing disappointments at the realization that hope for a better “Western-liberal” world comes at a cost. Paving the way for fresh theoethical imaginations requires decentering hope for a while, respecting everyday experiences of hopelessness amid unquelled grief and melancholia, and accepting the arbitrary nature of imposed meanings. It also means respecting seemingly radical anthropological views of nonexistence while seeking to resurrect the dead. In the end, nihilism and hopelessness call attention to living (and dying) in limbo––a reality that billions already face(d), and that if not challenged, could cost the lives of billions more in a world seemingly without end.