“The only thing in the world worth beginning: The End of the world of course.”
-Aimé Césaire, 1
I recently revisited the remarkable scene in Frederick Douglass’s narrative, where he and his fugitive comrades are detained and captured. To safeguard their passage, Douglass wrote up passes, knowing, to use Frank Wilderson’s apt phrasing2, all whites are “deputized” in the face of the Black, so that any white person could demand to see their “papers.” After elaborating on the precarious nature of “freedom”—its uncertainty as evident as its necessity—there’s a moment where Douglass describes one of them asking what he should do with his pass, lest it be discovered and their fugitive intent revealed. He tells him to eat it with his biscuit and “own nothing.”
We passed the word around, ‘Own nothing;’ and "Own nothing!" said we all. Our confidence in each other was unshaken. We were resolved to succeed or fail together, after the calamity had befallen us as much as before. We were now prepared for any thing.3
Owning nothing, they had everything.
In the Two Treatises of Government, (1689) John Locke sutures personhood to property. “Every man has a property in his own person,” he tells us. This is the sovereignty of whiteness as the Human, as the owning class, which is central not only to Locke’s political philosophy but by extension to the conceptual architecture of modern liberalism. What then, does it mean for we whose ancestors were deemed property, to re-imagine living in a world where ownership is belonging, where property indexes rights, ipseity, and the sovereignty of the Subject?
Isn’t this the Wildass Beyond?
Upon entering the exhibition I am presented with a zine designed by the artists that is at once an archive and a manual for living, both in and after the end of the world. The zine honors and problematizes survival and refuses the sovereignty of whiteness, opening up an alternative political landscape and sociality, one of non-sovereignty. As the artists note in their opening statement and treatise: “We do not want to repeat these dreams of being the center, forever tyrants over little kingdoms.”
A Tiny House
“Houses, as such refer to the three main axes of modern thought: the economic, the juridical, and the ethical, which are, as one would expect, the registers of the modern subject.”4
There’s a small constructed house in the middle of the space. It is rustic with brown wooden slats adorned with a beautiful purple and pink stained glass window. It contains a kitchen, bathroom, and loft for sleeping. There are family photographs and a genealogy tracing the discontinuous lines of kinship networks of enslaved resistance and the afterlife of that resistance. There’s also a library with speculative fiction and science fiction. I was drawn to Cixin Liu’s The Three Body Problem, which I belatedly read after visiting the exhibition.
The small house that the artists create is similar to, but at a wildass remove from, the burgeoning tiny house movement in the United States. This house enables you to see outside, where on one of the walls of the gallery space there is a sheet with a video projection of the artists discussing their creative process and the tiny house phenomenon. They discuss the cultural discourse surrounding it and even attend a tiny house festival. The film is a documentary showing both their collective adventure—a trip to the “tiny house jamboree” in Texas—and their critical intimacy as Black and POC artists engaging with this cultural phenomenon. Here the small house can also be read as an experiment in living otherwise, that is at the same time a critique of the tiny house as a white neoliberal band aid solution to racial capitalism’s housing inequality. The film is so moving because it shows the wildass beyond of their collective journey and critical intimacy as artists who are committed to thinking through, in such remarkable ways, what it means to live together in a prefigurative and aesthetic practice.
In this sense, the subtitle of the exhibition “ApocalypseRN ” bears a double valence, or rather, it repeats the double valence of the apocalyptic itself. Apocalypse comes from the Greek word apokalyptein which means “to uncover.” The artists’ starting point is that the “uncovering” is that the world is already a colonial, anti-black, apocalyptic racial capitalist regime.
In the event of disaster, we, the people who have always been surviving, will simply continue to survive. We have learned skills you wouldn’t believe, enduring under police states…5
I recently watched the British post-apocalyptic zombie horror film The Girl with All the Gifts (2016) directed by Colm McCarthy (who wrote the original book) which is about contagion and contamination, the end of Man, and the futurity of the child. In the film, pathogenic zombies pose an existential threat to humanity. There’s a remarkable and haunting line in that film: “It’s not over; it’s just not yours anymore.”
In Wildass Beyond, the artists collectively fabulate an image of survival that is both in the world and after it, a survival fashioned from the remnants of late stage racial capitalism and white sovereignty which operates as an instantiation of what Fred Moten and Stefano Harney name “the undercommons.”6
We seek contamination and participation, and being in it, over clean remove, over isolation, over any feeling of certainty that any one of us has the sole answer.
Black radical thought posits a distinction between the earth and the world,7 the former being the condition of possibility and ontological ground for the latter. The world is a colonial imaginary and as Frank Wilderson so rigorously demonstrates, an anti-Black one. Survival often overwhelms us with its critical urgency. How do we keep on living in the midst of all of this and how can we preserve what we have? How can we ensure that the earth survives the world? The legacy of Black feminist speculative fiction, such as the work of Octavia Butler, asks us to imagine and furnish strategies for collective survival in a post apocalyptic regime, rather than appeal to social Darwinism based in possessive individualism and sovereignty.
But the artists refuse the notion of purity and possessive individualism and thereby also reject its corollary, uncleanliness and innocence, which is bound up with anti-Blackness, colonialism, and carceral symbolics. We are always already contaminated, as the Anna Tsing quote on the zine cover emphasizes, “everyone carries a history of contamination; purity is not an option.”8
The apocalypse is an abolitionist affair.
We do not see ourselves in the paranoiac manuals of preppers, in minimalist lifestyle retreats, in the nativist isolationism of militiamen.
The prepper version of the end of the world is an apocalypse where the very structural violence of white supremacy that ends the world continues in its afterlife as white survivalism. Doomsday preppers don't see the doom as inhering in white supremacy or necropolitical borders but rather the doom is only the possibility of the end of white life. Indeed, in the absence of the police, the citizen-subject becomes the police at the anatomized level. This is true not only in prepper and apocalyptic mainstream zombie fantasy, such as The Walking Dead, but also in actual catastrophes such as hurricane Katrina. Whiteness assembles and swarms, taking both state and extra-legal/state form; its own political (dis)equilibrium collapses the institutional distinctions that ground the political itself.
“Join me down here in no where.”
-Claudia Rankine 9
And so we come to the Wildass Beyond of the exhibition itself, a dystopian beyond in the “no where” here and now. You forget that you’re in a city, least of all New York City, when you enter into the idyllic and rustic space, your feet literally in the dirt, so you feel at once reminded of and ensconced in Earth, something that is so easy to forget in the epicenter of global capital and its technologies of cable, wire, concrete and steel. Yet this is the imagined earth that remains after the end of the world. Here everything is makeshift and repurposed because everything has a purpose—to undermine capitalism’s axiomatic of extraction.
Following this practice, the artists even engaged viewers in a workshop about strategizing and envisioning the end of the world and how we will continue to survive, which included a conversation about horticulture, healing, and a beautiful altar as well. After thinking about what to contribute to this temporary fabulous zone, this aesthetic sanctuary, at once ephemeral and momentous, I decided to bring irises for the altar, to denote the liminality between this world and the next. In the Greek myth, Iris figures as a rainbow and is able to move between the realm of the world and that of the afterlife.
There at the gorgeous altar, after watching participants talk about how to live, in this version of the Earth as well as the next, I left them.
- Césaire, Aimé. Notebook of a Return to the Native Land. Wesleyan University Press, 2001.
- See Wilderson III, Frank B. Red, white & black: Cinema and the structure of US antagonisms. Duke University Press, 2010., pg. 80.
- Douglass, Frederick, and Harriet A. Jacobs. Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass, an American slave. Random House Digital, Inc., 2000., pg. 87.
- Chakravartty, Paula, and Denise Ferreira Da Silva. “Accumulation, Dispossession, and Debt: The Racial Logic of Global Capitalismmdash;an introduction." American Quarterly 64.3 (2012): 361-385.
- From the Wildass Beyond zine. All subsequent quotations from the zine are in italics.
- Moten, Fred, and Stefano Harney. "The University and the Undercommons: Seven theses." Social Text 22.2 (2004): 101-115.
- See Fred Moten and Jared Sexton on the earth versus the world as well as Aimé Césaire .
- Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt, The mushroom at the end of the world: On the possibility of life in capitalist ruins. Princeton University Press, 2015., pg. 27.
- Claudia Rankine, Citizen
Che Gossett is a trans femme writer, an archivist at the Barnard Center for Research on Women and a PhD candidate in trans/gender studies at Rutgers.