Presented at UC Irvine’s 16th Annual Comparative Literature Conference
I understand that the cinder is nothing that can be in the world, nothing that remains as an entity [étant]. It is the being [l’être], rather, that there is - this is a name of the being that there is but which, giving itself (es gibt ashes), is nothing, remains beyond everything that is (konis epekeina tes ousias), remains unpronounceable in order to make saying it possible although it is nothing.
-Jacques Derrida, Cinders
What follows is an accumulate of loose propositions. A heap of somewhat cursory attempts to think along black(ened) or ashen passages. And ultimately a desire to fall short of a distinct position and toward a worrying disposition, an indistinction whose only after is an afterlife—a death draws near or has already come to pass and I cannot tell the difference.
I take up ash as a metonym for the Slave. I mean to think of ash as not only a byproduct of municipal or carceral waste incinerators but also, like or through Blackness, a phobic object in the collective unconscious which becomes a locus for the satisfaction and anxiety of becoming or using matter whose History has been evacuated. In their semio-material spillage into one another through histories of contamination, labor, and geopolitical devastations, Blackness and ash (alongside an infinite array of other objects both material and phantasmic) transmogrify each other into forms of matter that cannot matter. Into absences that appear before us in the World still but only as waste that must be disappeared or utilized as or into absence. I argue that Blackness and ash function together as semio-material enactments of, to put it casually, not being able to tell the difference, of indistinction. Or rather, of being too late to distinguish between or retrieve, at the level of symbol, the contents of a pile — or the substance of an ontology. That is, the stuff of one’s ontology before it was set afire. However, as we will explore, an Afropessimist framework will challenge us to think critically about what the function of a before and the desire for one produces. Interrogating ‘function’ in this way is to ask: in what way does this particular object (either rhetorical or material) desire or signify the reproduction of Slavery’s metonymic expansion?
It was 1986 when Amalgamated Shipping Corp. was hired by the city of Philadelphia to manage its growing problem of excess bottom ash from its waste incinerators. Amalgamated had the cargo ship initially known as Khian Sea loaded with more than fourteen thousand tons of ash from the East Central incinerator (as well as from the incinerators that were discontinued or converted around the city) and subsequently dump its ashen cargo onto territories beyond the regulative force of the, at the time, newly introduced Environmental Protection Agency. Its first target: the Caribbean.1 Amalgamated tried to unload its ash in the Bahamas but was turned away once its government officials received word that the cargo was toxic: containing arsenic, cadmium, lead, mercury, dioxin, and other contaminants. It was then refused entry by the Dominican Republic, Honduras, Panama, and Bermuda. Across each, the cargo transformed at the level of signifier, going from incinerator ash to general cargo to bulk construction material. By now it is late 1987 and after being turned away by Guinea Bissau and Cape Verde in West Africa, the Khian Sea’s final stop would be Haiti. In one final attempt to resignify its cargo, Amalgamated Shipping Corp. changed the ash’s designation to “topsoil fertilizer” and headed for Gonaives. The Haitian government issued a permit for dumping under the significative misdirection and with Amalgamated’s deception uninterrupted, the ship proceeded to unload four thousand tons of its ash on the shore of Gonaives. The Haitian government was soon after alerted by Greenpeace that the ash was not fertilizer leading Haitian officials to demand that the ash be returned to the ship. The operators of the Khian Sea refused and departed, on their way to find other shores upon which to unload its remaining ten thousand tons of bottom ash. Two years, four continents, several name changes (of the ship itself: Felicia then the Pelicano), and eleven countries (including some across the Mediterranean) or rejections later, the ash remained aboard.
The crew eventually returned to the port in Philadelphia but mysteriously with no ash upon its deck. It was later discovered that the remaining ash had been dumped into undisclosed locations in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. It took twelve years for the United States to retrieve the ash from Gonaives and while a portion of the ash has since been buried in an inland bunker in Haiti, its effects were/are irreparable. It sat long enough to drift and spill across that shore where it was pulled into the air, inhaled by the sea where it poisoned marine life, sunk into the soil that goats grazed upon nearby whose composite now permanently contains toxic matter from the ash, and affected the fishing communities/industries that relied on the now contaminated waters.2 How to not think of indistinction here? At and within every fold of this incident, the Black—as we understand it to be, through Wilderson, as “a paradigmatic impossibility in the Western Hemisphere...[and] the very antithesis of a Human subject”—is figured as indistinct.3 Each island of the archipelago indistinct from one another— from Africa — with all marked as appropriate candidates for the disposition (in the double sense of both disposal and mood) of Empire’s ashes. The bottom ash made to be indistinct, in sign, from construction material, general cargo, and topsoil fertilizer. The Black is indistinct from what ash substantiates: an impossible melange of no history. The Black is marked as indistinct from a dumping ground for refuse or from charred refuse itself. The indistinction or proscription of material, affective, and organismal temporalities mark the Black as refuse of no origin and only of afterlife. Whose nature as afterlife stands for/indexes the threat of semio-material ambiguity; of one’s flesh having no conflict in the signifying chain with/beside the object; of one’s life being that which comes to index one’s death for which grief is unthinkable. An afterlife that is the condition of possibility for the ongoing origin of the World.
I am thinking of the perpetual marking/making of the Black as indistinguishable from object as a kind of incineration that fogs or collapses temporalities, significations, and interpretive controls. However, it is modernity’s (the plantation’s) coherence which is contingent upon this collapse, this loss. In other words, the Black and ash stand — in the interpretive act and even prior to it as dispossessed of a before and so become the interpretive ground or flesh that calls forth an incalculable number of guesses; that in the loss or removal of author, intent, and referent necessary for a so-called good or true interpretation (as we might understand that through Umberto Eco), the Black and ash yield endless interpretation. An infinity of afters. Most relevant of which is of the expression ‘after the end of the World’.
I suggest that anti-Blackness and its ashen materialities mark the anxiety and satisfaction from the impossibility of retrieval and the foreclosure of significant severance that legitimates the signifying chain and the rehabilitation necessary for interpretive activity itself. And I mean to use rehabilitation alongside Eco’s assertion that “the nature of a sign is to be found in the ‘wound’ or ‘opening’... which constitutes it and annuls it at the same time.”4 This is to say that a signifying and interpretive practice is an endlessly dissatisfied practice forever committed to bringing the wounded object into full distinction and symbolic unity. This is — if one is familiar with a Derridean or Lacanian definition of language — a necessarily recursive punishment into interpretive deficit. My question becomes how does one participate in interpretive activity in a World that is, in its totality, structured by anti-Blackness? I argue that semiosis/indication is the lens through which the Black is, at the same time, brought into interpretive focus and, through a vernacular of photography, is fixed as the chromatic aberration of the Social or the Human at a planetary scale.
What, then, is found in the wound of the World or in its signage? Which is to ask what thing does the World rely on for the formation of the necessary antagonism between annulment and constitution for its significant cohesion? As Tyrone Palmer draws out for us, “Blackness is the very matter that the World sees as its aim to obliterate, and therefore Black existence is violently positioned ‘out of the world’”. But more importantly, he asks “How does the continued insistence on ‘another world’ functionally reproduce the problem of worlding itself as key in the persistence of the anti-Black paradigm?’”.5
To imagine an after to the end of the World or to remain attached to the possibility of one (which, to learn from Palmer, tends to mean the production of another) announces an anti-Black desire to redress the dialectical wound of the World. Here, World is less a planet but a significant container for the interpretive controls that reproduce the World as a paradigm (or plantation) that over-represents itself as the only framework by which semiosis and affect can unfold. The Black, as that which has been proscribed from relation and for which semiosis is something it can only enable and distort as its property, designates the World’s outside; it is the negative excess by or more accurately against which the map of the World can be interpreted. And so, I also ask what is the imagined utility of the appendage ‘as we know it’ with regards to the World and its end? What does this offer the Black which has been condemned from participating/can only ever participate in the production of World-ness (if only) through its negativity and plasticity? Through its indistinction? Is there another way to know “World” if knowing it in the first instance, under an anti-Black linguistic regime, is a coercive scene? If knowing (the World) first means (its) interpretation, which is a shorthand for being seduced into a kind of epistemic and infinite mending of the wound and its designated opener/absence (the Black) that constitutes it and annuls it, then the interpretation of the World, or its ongoing symbolic rehabilitation, can only ever be a perfection of the plantation’s logic. I posit that it is through the plantation grammatical afterlife that the interpretive conflict of the World-sign is made possible. Necessarily proscribed from the World while being the negative analog for general interpretive activity in the World, the Slave is perfected into a tool for intertextual orientation. It is the semio-linguistic scale and compass for World-sense/ sign-making against and toward the anxious, delectable, and endlessly generative capacity of indistinction between constitution and annihilation.
A Heap of Language
In thinking of ash, blackness, and—what I’ll continue to call—fog, through terms such as utterance, signification, and interpretation I am wondering about the possibility of thinking of this “pile” as a kind of text. A text whose imposed interpretive constraint is at once the limit case of interpretation and its horizon of possibility—whose constraint is constraint itself; whose constraint is also infinity. On one axis, this constraint is perhaps most easily figured by the operations of a municipal incinerator that burns many kinds of matter proposing the semiotic challenge: are we able to look at a pile or bed of ash and relate what is/was what or who is/was whom(?). But on a libidinal axis, an incident like the Khian Sea marks how the Black is the endless container for the cultivation of indistinction; a necessary faculty against which interpretation of and in the World figures itself.6 The question or exercise across this axis, and central to this paper, becomes: how does one indicate or point to the pile of objects or property whether it has been thrown away or burned without also indicating the Black? And in that impossible and reproductive indication, is one not pointing at a kind of fog while calling out, in futility, a litany of signs by which to interpret the semio-material iterations of the Black? Property, object, death, magic, animal, oblivion, demon, ash. And what does interpretation yield for the Black? As the Khian Sea was dumping its ash onto Gonaives’ shoreline, a crew member of the ship came onto shore to speak with locals and an environmentalist group documenting the event. They asked him how worried he was about the toxicity of the ash, and he replied, “This is how worried I am of its toxicity” and took a chunk of ash into his hands, threw some into his mouth and swallowed it. Indication via ingestion was enough to narrate/signify the event as one that could not be interpreted as harmful or violent.1 Any other interpretation was foreclosed. If the people of Gonaives cannot participate in the act of indication and interpretation of the disposed-of ash and its toxic contents, even through forensic analysis, in an attempt to produce grief in the realm of the political, then it stands to reason that the Black is proscribed from the domain of interpretive activity and remains its property.
The pile is a text that induces another mode of hermeneutics that perhaps concedes to the simultaneous (unbounded) im/possibility of hermeneutic animation itself. Put differently, I mean to argue that ash and Blackness together function as the (dis)embodied proxy image or index of the significatory fog within which all matter/signs (as it is understood through a settler telos) is/are doomed to be obscured. This is to say the moment at which it, the sign, loses its previous symbolic (and economic) value—after it is no longer recognizable if only as ashen artifact. Only signified in the past tense. Its emergent value now lies in its status as indistinguishable excess, or the detritus of that which has been marked as the matter or sign of being too late to Being.
Once more, this interpretive antagonism is, as is all else, co-constituted; it animates an eschatology of interpretation that maintains/produces a phobic and philic capacity.11 The settler (or the Slave), at the same time, uses/assumes and evades/organizes against the death/loss of an utterance’s interpretive generativity to reinscribe anti-Black and settler-colonial signification that simultaneously deploys the pile as the terminal punishment of the Human and its laboring property. Put differently, indistinction is an interpretive ground upon which one fashions anxieties or masochistic pleasures for losing symbolic sovereignty (the sovereignty of the ‘I’ or the constitutive difference between the ‘I’ and the ‘it’) and from which one can organize a collection of laws, mythologies, and enforcements that deny or deify this loss.
If we are to take discourses of semiotics serious in their assertion that there is nothing before the text (or a kind of, through Wynterian terms, interpretive Master Code) which is to say that there is no World prior to the text and all that could follow remains within or is another text then we are perhaps doomed to anticipate successive Worlding— or a being World-ed. And it is in the infinite yet impossible text of the pile or the Black that this capacity emerges, as the wound of interpretation, of text, of World itself. The pile and its fogged intertextuality are fashioned as, at the same time, a point of departure for and a foreclosure of the interpretive act and its drift. It is then, to echo, by extension and coterminously, the End of (the) World and the possibility of another. A possibility under which the Black suffers and for which the Black is coerced into reproducing.
I’m interested in the case of the Khian Sea for how it tells the story of a different kind of indistinction. An indistinction that ash, and the flow of this ship’s ashes, in particular, make(s) legible not only through metaphor but also through a kind of semio-somatic imbrication. Through the slow annihilative effects of the Khian Sea’s ash — in its inhalation or spillage — the Black not only becomes co-constituted with/by the ash organismically but also ontologically. As forms of matter or enactments of matter’s end that possess no history and have no World if only as its captive or its refuse. In other words, the Black need not be organismically burned with objects in order for this analysis of co-constitution to prove true. The anti-Blackness of indistinction always exceeds the demands of material historicity. This libidinal materialism makes clear, precisely through its blurring effects/affects, that the fog of the Black’s indistinction is an ashen cloud of satisfaction and pain, of anticipation and relief, of value’s excess and grief ’s dispossession. That in the designation as both ontological and geopolitical dumping zone, the Black becomes everything and nothing: general cargo, bulk construction material, and topsoil fertilizer—alongside its infinite other interpretive imbrications.7
The sustaining of the Black’s incineration in/from the World through the relentless hermeneutics of every textual/interpretive control and operation of global capital calcifies it as the index not only of indistinction but the threat of becoming so. In every refusal from each nation of the Khian Sea’s ashes and the subsequent neglect at a global scale, was an agreement at the level of interpretive grammar that Haiti (or the Black) be the only plausible location for Amalgamated’s disposition, a libidinal and geographic position antagonistic with indication and grief. What the irreparable harm of that evinces for us is how the World as it is produced through political, social, and libidinal exchanges of interpretive control maintains the Black as a fixed and infinite sign against/through which to interpret difference and distinction as a faculty possessed by that which is assigned or can occupy the sovereignty of an author, a referent, and a grievable intent. The Black as that which has been positioned as the outside of history, semiosis, and World cannot possess authorial control, has no distinct referent, and whose utterances cannot produce an intention that is grievable in the event (which is always) that it is lost. The Black waits in the afterlife for the incendiary effects to mark the World as irreparable captive to its own recuperative/rehabilitative logics. Put another way, the World has already ended for the Slave. What it waits for might be, as Jatella makes clear for us, a linguistic invention that reconfigures the signifying chain such that the Black is not the “quilting point” upon which the World finds its stability or a World wherein an after cannot be produced without inhaling, eating from, or making sense out of the ash of an indistinguishable jaw, car, forest, Slave, and the rest of it. Which is to say without remaining within the text. An infinite chain of Worlds and their ends wherein interpretation is limited to those few things that have yet to be set afire.8
1. Received by Bob Corbett, The Full Story of the Khian Sea and the Gonaives Ash Mountain (Fwd), 5 Sept. 2000. 2. Received by Rich Winkel, US Refuses to Remove Philadelphia’s Toxic Ash From Gonaives, 9 Nov. 1995.
3. Wilderson, Frank B. “Introduction .” Red, White & Black: Cinema and the Structure of U.S. Antagonisms, Duke University Press, Durham, NC, 2010, p. 9.
4. Eco, Umberto. “The Sign As Difference.” Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, IN, 1997, p. 23.
5. Palmer, Tyrone S. “Otherwise than Blackness: Feeling, World, Sublimation.” Qui Parle, vol. 29, no. 2, Dec. 2020, p. 250.
6. Here, I am using the term libidinal as it relates to Afropessimism’s use of libidinal economy as defined by Jared Sexton through Frank Wilderson III: “Jared Sexton describes libidinal economy as ‘the economy, or distribution and arrangement, of desire and identification (their condensation and displacement), and the complex relationship between sexuality and the unconscious.’ Needless to say, libidinal economy functions variously across scales and is as ‘objective’ as political economy. Importantly, it is linked not only to forms of attraction, affection and alliance, but also to aggression, destruction, and the violence of lethal consumption. He emphasizes that it is “the whole structure of psychic and emotional life,” something more than, but inclusive of or traversed by, what Gramsci and other marxists call a ‘structure of feeling’; it is “a dispensation of energies, concerns, points of attention, anxieties, pleasures, appetites, revulsions, and phobias capable of both great mobility and tenacious fixation.’”
7. Thank you to Isabela Miñana Lovelace, a wonderful geologist, who indirectly introduced me to the term ‘imbrication’ as it relates to sedimentology and the practice of telling time through layers/imbrications of prehistoric ash and charcoal.
8. Pulled from @jatella on Twitter quote tweeting @_Rawilcox “this is what ‘introducing invention’ into existence’ really means. Can we invent a vocabulary, a signifying chain, a symbolic order wherein le nègre is not the quilting point; a system of logic whose concrete universal isn’t the nigger? The jury is still out.” 29 Apr. 2022
9. Other acknowledgments: thank you to carlos gomez for being a gorgeous interlocutor, editor, and friend. Thank you to Chris Velez, Zach Mclane, Joshua Westerman, and Reddit user Macguffawin for being so generous and talking through semiotic exercises with me. Thank you to TJ Shin for meditating with me in the (non)world of ash. Thank you to Sophie Friedman-Pappas for introducing me to the history of the Khian Sea, without your friendship and generosity, this research wouldn’t be what it has become.
10. It (the fog: the threat of semio-material ambiguity) is the armature of, for example, homiletic application or its neurosis (in the case of scriptural hermeneutics), jurisprudential punition or settler forensics (in the case of lost or destroyed evidence and what to do about it), the organization of the so-called public commons (in the multiplicity/ scorching of the clearing or in the presupposition of all land as always already scorched for development), and one of the organizing principles for chattel slavery (in their constant reassertion via the fashioning of the Slave; the reinscription of the ontological border between Human and property).