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On Decadence: Bling Bling


Let us imagine that “black lives matter” is a scandalous, even decadent claim, characterized, as the definition has it, by excess or luxury. One cannot understand this decadence outside of a certain moral politico-philosophical economy. If the virtues of restraint, industriousness, thriftiness have tended to be characterized as white, blackness is often construed as a desiring in whose meaning excess, or luxury, signifies a sociocultural impoverishment that is morally bankrupt. This trope takes on the amplitude of an all-encompassing theme in the discourse of anti-blackness in the West. It compels a view of blackness that, in relation to sovereign life, reveals an experience of excess enjoyed beyond consummation and one that is socially irresponsible. So what of this extravagant expenditure itself? If claiming “black lives matter” is to risk a certain exorbitance, this is not because there is any certainty about the meaning of black life, but because asserting that black life matters foregrounds those attributes by which blackness is assumed to have a value in culture. Black is a being that is somehow both useless and endlessly driven by consummation: bling bling.

This “decadence” rests on a twofold movement: unless blackness is put to work as the figure of endless, unproductive labor, its “natural” course will assert itself as an exaggeratedly inflated figure of inflation; or, rather, the way that blackness puffs itself up when possessed of capital is actually a sign of decadent inutility, as in the case of an excess noteworthy for its unproductive labor: bling bling. Since whiteness is therefore the privileged figure of productive capital, it represents, paradoxically, not only the limit that separates production from conspicuous consumption but also what separates racial wealth from racial poverty.

In this essay my aim is to explore how this racially derived notion of decadence always already relies on a perverse association of blackness with excess, upon which is founded an entire analysis of culture. For bling bling not only transcends class as well as gender; it makes it impossible to distinguish blackness from a racist economy of jouissance that, potentially, can invade and submerge every subject, person, or thing. Accordingly, if blackness denotes a profligacy that exceeds the moral economy of the subject, this is because it broaches the limits of being in general.

We could say that black life is the very experience of a life whose bling involves the exhaustion and degeneration of life itself, and one that necessarily involves a gradual separation of blackness and being. And this is why black life paradoxically coincides with a decadence that can only enrich itself as absolute privation, and an enjoyment that can only enslave itself as a discredited imposture of working capital.

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