V. Overkill, Humanism, Onticide

My purpose in offering this provisional formulation of the relationship between the racialized reaction GIF, the multiple scenes of its exchange, and the calcification of systems of racial subordination has been to illuminate another densely charged nexus of subjectification within the endlessly unfolding continuum of racialization as a violent social and ontological project. The questions I have posed remain undergirded by a particular recuperative ethos, the distillation of which generates the two broad inquiries that recapitulate the many interrogative threads woven throughout the writing. The first inquiry asks how the exchange of racialized reaction GIFs denies Black persons access to the ontological category of the “human,” with all the benefits, however fraught, that accrue with that interpellation. The second question, building upon the insights of the first, asks how an identification of the process by which this shared claim to the ontological status of human is denied to Black persons might point toward an alternative politics of digital-object consumption, one less flagrantly dismissive of its own implication in the racialization’s violent reproduction. I would like to briefly draw attention to the presupposition that conditions the possibility of these two questions, that very recuperative ethos which presumes that the (socially generated) ontological character of the “human” and the rendering of Blackness can be congruently reconciled. I will return to this point below.

The remarks with which I concluded the introductory chapter of this effort’s material-textual form homed in on this question of ontological impossibility. Turning to Eric Stanley’s “Near Life, Queer Death: Overkill and Ontological Capture,” I relocated Stanley’s notion of overkill within the ontological register simultaneously implicated and generated by the GIF. I there wrote: “The GIF will be shown to underscore the relationship between the making-machine of Black bodies and the telos of American racism, the subjection of those bodies to overkill.” Stanley proposes overkill as a conceptual mode that would enable bringing in to signification that which would seem to defy it, the practice of excessive forms of violence that push a body beyond the biological coordinates of death. Overkill functions for Stanley as the analytic necessary to understand the gruesome murders of Lauryn Paige, a transwoman who was partially decapitated and stabbed over sixty times by those who murdered her, and Rashawn Brazell, a queer Black man whose body was dissected after Brazell was murdered. Overkill is able to approach the signification of these horrors because it locates their violence “precisely not outside of, but [within] that which constitutes liberal democracy as such.”

Thinking together the notion of overkill and the question of time, Stanley argues that overkill indexes, symbolically and materially, a “temporality of violence” altogether particular to its operation: “[The] biological time when the heart stops pushing and pulling blood, yet the killing is not finished . . . [this concurrence] suggests the aim is not simply the end of a specific life, but the ending of all [differentially marked] life.” This move to end all differentially marked life establishes the vicious force of “ontological capture,” a “space of nonexistence . . . forged in the territory of inescapable violence . . . [which] crystallizes the ontocorporeal, discursive, and material inscriptions that render specific bodies in specific times as the place of the nothing.” It is this reconfiguration of subjective particularity into a vast abyss of universally formless nothingness that I maintained—and still do maintain, although in a more fractured, multiple form—is at stake in the dissemination of racialized reaction GIFs that fortify a logic of digital blackface.

In his perspicacious reading of Stanley’s argument, the failures of humanism, and the political promise of Afro-pessimism, Calvin Warren asserts that “we lack a grammar outside humanism that would allow us to articulate ‘particularity,’ ‘difference,’ and ‘surplus violence’ without getting trapped in a double bind” of humanist thought as the inescapable bedrock of Afro-pessimism’s critical endeavors, one that would claim the properties of humanism for Black bodies when the very vitality of the humanist enterprise is the categorical impossibility of a shared ontological status between Black and human. Warren’s “Onticide: Afro-pessimism, Gay N. #1, and Surplus Violence” seeks to contest this thorny impasse through the methodological potential of onticide, which Warren describes as “writing with and against humanism” by deploying “the technique of erasure (sous rature) in relation to features of human difference that exclude [B]lackness but are necessary to articulate the fracturing of [Blackness’ seeming] fungib[ility].”1 The erasure to which onticide attends is marked by the typographical striking out of a term that, when placed in relation to the objecthood of Blackness, would obscure the incompatibility of Blackness with the human through the positing of an identitarian ontological equivalence. As Warren states:

Onticide’s erasure, then, would highlight the original death of [B]lackness at the center of humanism. Humanism is fractured by this interdiction on [B]lackness, and it is this fracturing that produces the field of human difference and uniqueness. In a word, ontology is made possible by the death of [B]lackness—onticide. The erasure draws attention to this fact.

Onticide offers a methodological way to claim an impossible difference, an opportunity to demarcate the excess of violence that undergirds anti-Black social libidinal economies while still attending to the multiple positionalities that the subject exposed to violent precarity may occupy. Importantly, it does not seek to reconcile the ontological category of the human with Blackness; rather, it disavows the ultimate utility of this reconciliation, enjoining us to think beyond the discursive confines of humanist discourses predicated upon the exclusion of Black bodies.

Warren’s text, as well as the methodological intervention his onticide offers, brings a productive challenge to the terms on which my analysis has proceeded. Insofar as I have attended to the disproportionate featuring of Black women as the content of racialized reaction GIFs in this discussion, the methodological imperative of an onticidal analysis would ask me to rethink the questions I have asked in some, though not all, of the following ways: How does the racialized reaction GIF further aggrandize the surplus violence to which Black women are exposed? That is to say, how does this violence for which we lack a conceivable grammar or ontological cipher come to necessarily condition the very possibility of the “ontological,” thereby making the lived experiences of Black women exceedingly violent? Or, to bridge Warren’s analysis with one more attuned to the questions of media studies, how must we rethink the GIF’d Black woman? That is, how does the transformation of Black women into the content of GIFs further confound the ontological matrix of humanism and its recuperative impossibilities? What is it about the transformation into GIF content that marks out the specificity of this excess of violence against Black women, an excess of an excess of violence that is anti-Blackness under a racist American order of things?

The generative possibilities of an onticidal reading of the racialized reaction GIF are many, and it is to Warren’s robust critical endeavors that I will turn in my further developments of this line of inquiry. I cannot deny that I am in full accord with his conclusion about the impossibility of reconciling Blackness with the ontological space of the human; American histories of race-based genocide are the gruesome backdrop of countless moments of racialized precarity. The question of the surplus is equally compelling, particularly with regard to the possibilities of reconfiguring or resisting the herculean violence of a racist state and racist social order. How the excess of surplus is recuperated and made to function within the social-symbolic cannot be monolithically determined with regard to the present or to any unfolding futures. Excess, in its violent exorbitance, may also function as the fault line that may undermine the modes in which the social captures that excess for its own employ. These questions are opened by Warren’s notion of onticide, and an examination of their implications is a necessary next step in this work.

  1. I have altered the title of Warren’s text slightly, abbreviating one of the words with only its first letter. I have done so because I see no critical value in my reproducing that word, regardless of its being positioned in a text that critically engages the murderous racism the term symbolizes and performs. A link has been appended to access Warren’s text, which provides the title in its entirety.