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Below the Water: Black Lives Matter and Revolutionary Time


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Legendary Detroit activist Grace Lee Boggs used to begin every meeting with her now famous question: “What time is it on the clock of the world?” We rarely try to answer that question in terms of time, instead preferring to say what we think is the most important thing going on right now. But Grace, along with her husband Jimmy Boggs, was very aware of the temporal dynamic of revolution. When Detroit automakers disposed of human labor in favor of what was then called cybernetics, Grace and Jimmy understood that the time-work relation created by industrial capitalism as a structure for human life was ending. The violent suppression of the 1967 Detroit Uprising led them to update the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution as their model for change. Faced with the beginnings of deindustrialization in Detroit, Jimmy Boggs declared that “a job ain’t the answer” to systemic crisis, meaning a forty-hour work week contract. In her later thinking, Grace Lee Boggs took the situation in Detroit as an opportunity to shape the future: “we had been granted an opportunity to begin a new chapter in the evolution of the human race, a chapter that global warming and corporate globalization had made increasingly necessary. In its dying, Detroit could also be the birthplace for a new kind of city.” Detroiters call it {r}evolution. It is a relation of human and nonhuman life, considered in relation to planetary time. This time is nonlinear and open, offering a means to rethink our relation to the world. Out of the ruins, whether of Detroit or the Anthropocene, it becomes possible to see how revolutionary time has always been there and what it might become now.

Black Lives Matter is a theoretical proposition. Here I want to explore the contradictions within the phrase “black life” in terms of the current crisis in the earth system. Denise Ferreira da Silva opens her study on the global idea of race with a reflection on “that moment … between the release of the trigger and the fall of another black body, of another brown body, and another … [which] haunts this book”; we might say that the same moment haunts Black Lives Matter. That is, “life” in the phrase “Black Lives Matter” is defined as that which can be killed or which dies. It is also a measure of time, for however long we are alive is a life. Many human lives have been and are considered disposable, surplus, or without value, so the movement speaks of each life as mattering. When black life matters, time itself is altered, creating revolutionary time. These temporalities have become entangled with the crisis of earth-system time known as the Anthropocene. That time, known to geologists as “deep time,” is in crisis. And it’s a good thing too, because out of that crisis has reemerged the possibility of revolutionary time. No one has been more aware of this dynamic than the anti-black reactionary right. To be for revolutionary time, whatever one’s own personal history, is to be for anti-anti-blackness as the condition of transformative possibility.

Critical work has for a long time now not been interested in time. In 1967—a time that will keep recurring in this piece—Michel Foucault declared that “the present epoch will be perhaps above all the epoch of space.” Here he was mixing temporal and spatial vocabularies. For his interest in space was a challenge not to time but to the teleology of Western concepts of History, whether that of the Great Man, the triumph of capital, or the revolution. He added a caveat: “it is not possible to disregard the fatal intersection of time with space.” That intersection today is twofold. In the first intersection, we see that white supremacy writes about race in terms of time. White races are “advanced” or “civilized,” while nonwhite races have been designated as “backward” or “barbaric.” Nineteenth-century typologies like that of John Nott organized this as a timeline extending from the chimpanzee, via the Negro, to the Apollo Belvedere. They did not understand this as an evolution but rather as a hierarchy of separate species. The fact that no living being could sufficiently instantiate whiteness was an irony that passed them by.

This hierarchy within the human is entirely active today, as Alexander Weheliye has pointed out: “blackness designates a changing system of unequal power structures that apportion and delimit which humans can lay claim to full human status and which humans cannot.” To be “white” only makes sense within a system of white supremacy that creates and sustains hierarchies, in which to be white is to benefit. In the American universal, as Ta-Nehisi Coates has put it, “white supremacy is not merely the work of hotheaded demagogues, or a matter of false consciousness, but a force so fundamental to America that it is difficult to imagine the country without it.” To make America great again is, then, to make it “white again,” a temporal action in which the future becomes more like the past and less like the present.

Read the full article here.