Le Noir n’est pas (Frantz Fanon).1 The essays presented here proceed from a long meditation on the meaning of Fanon’s troubling idea of the “n’est pas,” undertaken in an effort to understand—through a philosophical-genetic approach—how this notion exceeds the categories (as well as principles) of blackness as meaning or concept.2
First, the book claims that the n’est pas cannot be determined as experience or representation—more precisely, its excess can neither be subsumed nor reproduced as Dasein, for it frees blackness from any obedience to ontology, and so detaches it from any servitude to philosophy. This book thus avoids any ontological—or more exactly, eidetic—attempt to reveal the n’est pas. The n’est pas cannot be measured in terms of being, since its subtracting intuition surpasses limitlessly the sum of those intuitions that saturate it; the n’est pas should rather be called an incommensurable, or immeasurable, abyss. This lack of saturation, however, does not always or even first of all suggest limitlessness; it is often marked by unforeseen crystallizations, permitting different aggregations to be foreseen on the basis of different arrangements and effects. As the crystallized phenomenon passes beyond all finite summations—which often cannot be seen—all syntheses must be abandoned in favor of what Fanon calls the abyssal whose infinitesimal end precedes and surpasses compositions of being.
The n’est pas must also account for how those saturated depths occur in their exorbitant splendor and wretchedness.
When Fanon introduces the n’est pas it is to question how blackness is what is given to be seen, each time, according to a perspective that is total as well as partial, conceivable, and always comprehensible. The n’est pas is not limited to these registers; nor is it a thought of disclosure to be affirmed and confirmed as such. The n’est pas shows us how our intentions and intuitions are often cut off from the real; that our perspectives prevent us from knowing and recognizing how our vision is structured by irreal elements, and so, how we are led astray by our own passions and attachments. At each stage of our descent, we see something emerge as chaotic, monstrous, and react to it in pain and distress; but we are unable to attain it, being equally incapable of telling apart knowledge from something lost or desired. In this way, the saturated depths cannot be foreseen, for the delusion that saturates reality, forbids black particularity from being distinguished as particularity, thereby annulling its possibility as invention. Consequently, because these depths could not be intuited, all possible paths leading down to them could also not be foreseen. Similarly, the n’est pas challenges the conatus essendi3 of being, from being considered apart from race war and a black will to power. Black power is, in fact, a power that is beyond power. It is not an object to be had—it is a power that begins by withholding itself and thus remains inconceivable to any object as its effect. The n’est pas must thus account for the ways in which conatus goes to war against blackness as a power which is neither true nor the good. It must teach us the cure for our powerlessness, and precisely because blackness can never be the means of obtaining a cure. In this sense, blackness is strictly an auto-immune relation in which every struggle to discover and appropriate it ends in suspense and incomprehensibility.
Let me note, however, two points to avoid misunderstandings. The status of the analyses offered here remains to be determined. Moreover, there is no terminology that can convert or translate the n’est pas. Neither judgement nor freedom are up to the task, nor spirit or revelation. Unlike certain themes of philosophy or psychoanalysis, the n’est pas does not coincide with either mastery or knowledge; nor is it a presence grasped in representation and its concept; nor is its meaning hidden in the semantics of the verbal form to be. I say absolutely that the n’est pas does not constitute a concept—it is the dark invisable of reason—for it is not determinable or meaningful.4 Nonetheless, the relation between blackness and the n’est pas presupposes certain relations. To make sense of those relations this book has recourse to the notion of effacement. This word is not a metaphor. But it does manifest a structure, as Lacan might say.
A privileged example of effacement is found in the existent. In the modern era it has been the fate of black life to be valued according to its nullity and its fungibility. If to live means to fulfill the freedom of one’s essence, to reach it without hindrance—immanently; and only what is free can be judged as living, black being enters history as the definition of unfree life that also undoes the relation between being and existence. The sign of this unfreedom, whether in law or politics, is manifested by the corpus exanime, which is the relic of a life that is above all not living, and whose existence causes a ripple or shudder in those living on. According to Fanon, this corpus exanime affects us even before we know what it is, or rather precisely because we know it only delusorily: as méconnaissance. Misrecognition offers us only a semblant life (we could also say an image that effaces), and yet is, at the same time, imposed on us with a power such that we are submerged by what shows—and thereby hides—itself, to the point of fascination.
Another privileged example comes from art. To love only the art that plunges one into total darkness is to make an idol out of darkness.5 It is not to grasp how black art is the sign and worship of its own darkness. The n’est pas crystallizes this semidarkness, but not as revelation or enlightenment. For it foresees what art cannot foresee, i.e., that darkness cannot be aimed at, meant, or intended. Consequently, the n’est pas precedes any apprehension that wrongly applies “knowledge (of the object)” to the non that unfolds as the black excess (of form, materialism, or structure). The n’est pas is not merely a fact of structure.6 Such a thought is too pious. But the n’est pas is not pious—or more precisely, it is because it is not limited to a black imagining of form that it passes beyond any piety of form (it has no connection to form as affect). In that sense, it is as opposed to aesthetics as it is to religion or any other form of consolation. It is the dark invisable of reason. As for us, the art that opposes itself to the judgement of form is not thereby opposed to violence, the saving violence of form, the lawful violence of the tabula rasa. Only the art that wages the cruelest war on black pain and suffering makes the n’est pas appear. This art that crystallizes the n’est pas destroys us. It destroys the law that makes blackness complicit with the suffering pain of its existence. As such, this art is directly experienced as the unbearable.
Accordingly, the n’est pas cannot be borne. This consideration derives solely from realizing that when the black gaze cannot bear what it sees, it suffers effacement, and, because what cannot be borne, concerns what cannot be seen—the thought that is nègre to thought—then to think the n’est pas is to think what we are incapable of knowing and incapable of reaching. It concerns an effacement that our being cannot sustain. This effacement informs what is recognized as our necessary weakness, because it keeps within the limits suggested by our idealizations and fantasies. We have so little knowledge of the n’est pas that we do not know it (how it invades our thoughts, and all the forms of consciousness and unconsciousness). Disturbed as he is by the contemplation of the n’est pas in his own being, Fanon dares to say that blackness is not capable of recognizing it—as a thought, or cogitatum. Indeed, he says that we suffer from a bedazzlement that tries to universalize our wretchedness instead of trying to think it—or think it better. But I would suggest that this is because we are weighed down by it, that is to say that our wretchedness weighs too much, and precisely because blackness is so weightless a thought. There is no doubt that this weightlessness is heavier than the world. Beyond the in-itself and the for-itself of the disclosed, this weightlessness burdens me; it burdens me in my solitude and in my exile from the world; it burdens me because it causes me to fall, without end, without protection and without defense, in oblivion. But it also burdens me with a strange dishonor which harasses me from the first moment each day. It is easier to bear this weightlessness than to see my dishonor exposed: what else can I do, given the insecurities, fears, and miseries of black existence? For the author of Black Skin, White Masks, black being has become something empty, weightless, yet quickly evaporating, lost to itself, expelled from itself in so far as it is a desire without ex-sistence.
This is why blackness cannot be too much occupied and distracted, that is to say, when we imagine that judgment and justice in the world will unburden us of our cares, we are advised to avert our gaze from the n’est pas, and to keep ourselves fully occupied with the promise of the mountain or tabernacle.7 Therefore, if you can see something in the darkness around you, and if you can find something to hold onto in this limitless, unfathomably deep loss of experience, why, if the n’est pas is so removed from knowledge or object, does it reveal to you this absence in your essence, why should you not be able to know, with an even greater certainty of reflection, what the n’est pas reveals to you as the invisable? In this dereliction—which I am imagining was also Fanon’s—we experience the n’est pas as a nearness that is also impossibly far. The n’est pas, according to Fanon, identifies here an informe—not of being—but an informe that is without form, for it subsists as the dark tain of every mirror. These mirrors show us that there is another world, but only the abyss leads us there. It follows from all this, first, that these mirrors conceal nothing but our own disappearance, so that we only become visible in our disappearance, or that disappearance from life is what defines black life. Secondly, wrapped in such cloaks of disappearance we cannot even see whether we are enrobed or denuded. There is thus an intolerable presumption in such arguments, although they seem to be based on an illuminating wisdom, which is neither sincere nor reasonable, unless it makes us admit that, since we do not know of ourselves as we are, we can learn it only in the incommensurability of the seldom seen or found.
1. Frantz Fanon, Peau noire, masques blancs (Éditions du Seuil: Paris, 1952), 6.
2. The problems discussed here are closely related to those I examined in two recent works titled Whither Fanon?: Studies in the Blackness of Being (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2018) and Lacan Noir: Lacan and Afro-Pessimism (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2021). While the reader is not required to refer to those books, they should be aware that they form a kind of critical introduction to the notions, and definitions, pursued in this book.
3. Emmanuel Levinas, Otherwise than Being, or Beyond Essence, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1969).
4. I borrow the word invisable—meaning unable to be intended or aimed at—from Jean-Luc Marion’s The Visible and the Revealed, trans. Christina M. Gschwandtner (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008).
5. The allusion is to Darby English, How to See a Work of Art in Total Darkness (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007).
6. Jacques Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book XIV: The Logic of Fantasy, 1966–1967, trans. Cormac Gallagher (unofficial), 115, PDF. Published online by Jacques Lacan in Ireland, http://www.lacaninireland.com/web/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/14-Logic-of-Phantasy-Complete.pdf.
7. The allusion here is to Martin Luther King Jr.’s last speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” given on April 3, 1968.