Global Currents article

Something Else A’Comin’ . . .

Dance of the Starlings, Photo Credit: Conni Nielsen

This paper was originally conceived of as a response to an important panel conversation at the American Academy of Religion in Denver, Colorado on November 17, 2018. Moderated by Professor Atalia Omer, the panel was the occasion for a conversation between leading scholars on the theme of “Moral Obligations, Prophetic Actions, and the Search for Solidarity from Historical, Transnational, and Global Perspectives.” The panelists were Professor Daniel Boyarin (in abstentia; UC, Berkeley), Professor Farid Esack (University of Johannesberg), Professor Susannah Heschel (Dartmouth College), and Santiago Slabodsky (Hofstra University).

The to-and-fro and the back-and-forth of the dialogue suggests a conversation that took with the utmost seriousness the intellectual and ethical urgencies of the subject matter, particularly as it relates to the specific cases of South Africa, Palestine, and Israel. These places and cases command and demand our attention today, especially the attention of those of us who work in religious studies inasmuch as the drivers of the devastation and death, both spectacular and slow, monumental and everyday, in these places in the world are inextricably bound up with questions and the very meaning of religion and life together. And now to my response…

While I am unable to do justice to all of the nuances of the panel conversation, I would like to surface an issue that moves at the oblique edges of the discussion. This is the issue not just of colonialism, which was explicitly invoked and theoretically attended to, but of settler colonialism. Here we might think of settlerism along with enslavement as modernity’s inner logos or meaning, the pillars that stand up the modern world as an arrangement or an economy and ecology that, with Cedric Robinson, also bears the name “racial capitalism.” As such settlerism (or land theft) with enslavement (labor theft) is that through which modern consciousness, modern desire, and modern life emerges. It is that through which Western life and thought lives and moves and has being. It is the practice of a violent and limited, an appropriative and expropriative, a thieving and exclusionary “We-ness.”

Putting a fine point on this, Iyko Day observes that “settler colonial racial capitalism is [neither] a thing” nor is it adequately understood as a historically isolable event or series of events. Rather, “[settler colonialism] is a social relation.” That is to say, settler “colonial capitalism is more appropriately figured as an ecology of power relations than a linear chain of events” (112-13). This ecology manifests in relation to that Westphalian international system of states associated with what has come to be called the West and whose activity is carried out under presumption of a particular figure.

This is the figure of “the settler.” Within (post) enlightenment philosophy the settler is known as the sovereign, self-determined subject, and within political thought as the “citizen.” As normative citizen, the settler indexes or represents and even stands as a proxy for what is proper, indeed, for the properly human whose standing is over and against those imagined as Man’s nonhuman or less-than-human Others, those, that is, who fall short of the human as such. If the settler as citizen embodies propriety and proper (political) subjecthood and thus embodies proper life and thus is properly human, then the Other to the citizen gets cast as nonhuman or less-than-human or marginally-human or infra-human and ultimately a threat to the political economy of citizens or those deemed properly human, the community of the human “we.”

However, what philosopher and cultural theorist Sylvia Wynter gives us to understand about this imaginary of the human is that it is an “overrepresentation.” By this she means that rather than being made to the measure of the world, this specific genre or version and historical unfolding of the human has come to stand in the place of the human as such. This is the genre whose spatiotemporal and geographical and even geological unfolding is named (Western) Man.

In “worlding” himself, Man enacts two things. On the one hand, Man seizes, settles, or acts to possess the earth for himself. John Locke gives us the philosophy of this settler colonial seizure of the earth through his theory of property. On the other hand, precisely in his geopolitical and geological rupturing or “anthropocening” of the earth, Man also registers the biopolitical production or “massification,” as Jasbir K. Puar has recently put it, of populations. The point of Man’s conversion of populations into unhuman masses is so that total value or total life might be seized or cannibalized, indeed extracted from them for the founding and sustaining of the settler state and for the general sustaining of its central, normative figure, namely, the human (homo politicus, homo economicus). In other words, Man is a figure of ontological and planetary terror, as Calvin Warren powerfully argues. The terror of Man both produces and targets the nonhuman or the less-than-human mass(es) figured as the Racial Other.

The ongoing attacks against black life and native peoples in the United States, along with the specific cases of South Africa and Palestine in the latter’s ongoing struggle against Israeli settler colonialism, I contend, showcase the problem of the human as the central problematic internal to settler colonialism. But also, I would argue, it is at this site of the unhuman, the loci of an “inhuman” darkness, that we find a strange, queer diaspora that, precisely in its unhumanity, its parahumanity, its humanimality, indeed, in its adjacency to the mushroom—which, as Anna Tsing elaborates, finds a way to survive devastation—bespeaks an alternative: Modes of life beyond or in excess of the temporality of Man. Let us, again, call this the mass(es), that dark swarm whose movements are like the murmuration of starlings, a murmuring mass. Like the wandering monks of old (I mean the “gyrovagues” who freaked out St. Benedict and against whom he wrote his “Rules” of obedience), the murmuring mass is a wandering, borderless, non-settler “we” whose very presence unsettles every property line, every boundary that the settler imposes. This is a different kind of “we,” one not centered on the human. This is a ”we” that is before, after, and beyond every state-sanctioned or exclusionary “We the People…” We need a language for this different, non-statist we-ness.

A murmuration of starlings at Gretna, Photo Credit: Walter Baxter

When Professor Boyarin calls for a “deep theorization of diaspora” that is neither the same as a “statist nationalism,” with its racism and violence, nor like a “denatured German-style Reform in which ‘Judaism’ is a faith, or a ‘religion,’ or even a prophetic turn of mind, as per the American Council of Judaism,” but rather is a diaspora devoted “not to the government” but to an otherwise we-ness, a we that is “both here and elsewhere” and that is also Palestinian inasmuch as the Palestinian “we” is a “we” “whom ‘we’ [Jews] . . . oppress”—when Professor Boyarin says these things he is pointing to something like the alternative we-ness of which I speak and that settler colonialism seeks to arrest through the imposition of state logics. The alternative isn’t elsewhere, but instead is an elsewhen marked by a kind of quantum communion that is irreducible to statist or biopolitical logics, including statist or settler colonial logics of religion and the settler gods. Professor Boyarin, in effect, calls for the decolonization of time itself. As Caribbean-Canadian poet M. NourbeSe Philip puts it, our moral obligation is to “snap the spine of [humanist] time” (141) inasmuch as within settler colonial or humanist time support for racist, statist, anti-Palestinian Zionism, which must be rigorously distinguished from Jewish identity, in effect operates as an extension of white supremacy into the Middle East in the name of supporting the state of Israel and in complex ways reverberates back into the U.S. in both antisemitic and antiblack ways.[1] This is the circuitry of settlerism as political theology.

This all brings me to something Professor Heschel says. I am thinking of moments in the course of her comments in which she takes us into what might be thought of as the spirituality of the issues at hand. Her comments are powerful and, in a good way, absolutely arrested me.

After talking about her sojourn through the 1960s and about how hearing Dr. King affected her so, Professor Heschel asks the question, “What does it mean to be moved?” This is a powerful question, worthy of just sitting with, brooding with, dwelling with, as we meditate on our moral obligations in this moment of settler colonial devastation of peoples and of the earth itself.

“What does it mean to be moved,” she asks?

This question is utterly bound up with social movements as historical-empirical phenomena, movements like Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. But also what emerged out of May 1968, such as what traveled under the name “Black Power.” And more recently, what is called “the Movement for Black Lives” and the movement for a free Palestine. But never taking her eye off of social movements in their phenomenal appearing, Professor Heschel invites us, as it were, to look inside of such movements to ask a question, to catch sight even if only in a flash of another order.

Hers is the question of how a movement moves you. What in a movement moves you? What gives itself through a movement even as it exceeds the mo(ve)ment? What moves (within) the movement? This is a question of the sacred interior, which is not the interior of the would-be sovereign individual or the settler-as-citizen subject. This is the interior of the mass(es), an interior mass whose fundamental entanglement manifests the sacred and bespeaks a poetics of the social. Perhaps when Frantz Fanon inquired into “that within,” the gulf or abyss or the indefineable vanishing point that exceeds racialization or what epidermal blackening and browning as cultural operations aim to arrest,[2] he too was approaching the question of what moves subterraneously, underneath, and in excess of the political.

“What does it mean to be moved,” Professor Heschel asks.

It’s then that just as her listeners, an audience of scholars, might expect her to offer your classic or scholastic (read: typically academic) answer to the question she poses, she pulls back. She refuses to answer—at least in such a way that would freeze the question in answering it. What comes through is that it is not so much about the answer as it is about keeping the question alive in whatever answer one gives. It’s, in other words, about the ongoing quest(ion)ing.

And so, immediately following upon her asking her moving question, Professor Heschel says that to be moved in social movement is to undergo something. It is to be set in flight, to be set roaming and roving and wandering, to be opened out into what exceeds you, to move into the open, to have one’s limits crossed, all borders breached, the very notion of “world” broken open. In short, it’s to be “in the break.” This Heschel calls “religious experience,” about which she says, “I need that.”

Finally, Professor Heschel caps her reflections by further saying, in effect, that to undergo social movement is precisely to not give into despair, knowing (and this is very deep) that “there is something else coming.” Affectively caught in the wave, so to speak, in the sensation, carried by the feeling of what’s coming, to be touched by and to haptically surrender to that something else beyond the political as we know it—about this Professor Heschel says, “I have to hold onto that,” for “that I guess is what keeps me going with the praxis.”

There is a terrible beauty borne in what Professor Heschel, I think, is getting at. Here we glimpse social movement as an anticipatory praxis of something else coming, manifest in a kind of ante-political assembly, a mode of gathering or assembly or commune-ion that falls outside of though it surges through the violences of state time and history. Her words are a kind of “sorrow song” that celebrates the mass(es) or social movement even if that celebration is singed with some sort of sadness. This all arrested and moved me, I must say, inasmuch as I’ve been thinking a lot about what spirituality means in settler colonial times, about the “mysticism” of social movements, something I’ve recently called the “the mysticism of the riot” and the spirit(uality) of the general strike. What if spirit is of the riot? What if spirit is the general strike, ritual of an alternative cosmology?[3]

To be moved by the more-than-now, by a wholly-other, something-else-future is to be under fugitivity’s sway. Per the black radical tradition’s meditations on the historical figure of the fugitive and the arts of escape, fugitivity here bespeaks an other order of time. This other temporality bespeaks, as Melissa Louidor puts it as she thinks with Fred Moten, a certain “mobilization of black vitality.” It is a “futuristic impulse to claim the not-yet-forged possibilities of existence.” That impulse, to stay with Louidor a bit longer, might be thought about in terms of certain “biomechanic and metaphysical forces [that] activate” imagination, which is to say “effort, an effort that is integral to claiming survival.” To dwell within fugitive time or to be fugitively on the move is to resonate with, indeed to reside or tarry with, the im/possibility of other worlds. I’m talking about new ways of dwelling with and being on the earth. This is a kind of quantum communion, the veritable entanglement of all things precisely at the level of thingliness itself, at the level of base matter or raw vitality. In short, the modernity of fugitivity names the mobilization of a queer vitality, an “aliveness,” Kevin Quashie might say, beyond racial category.[4] While constantly engaging politics and maneuvering with respect to state structures, that which moves in fugitive time moves under the sociopoetic propulsion of an uncaptureable force that is irreducible to political ontology and its presumption of the human. As such, fugitivity is an insurgent practice of prophesy, though without the figure of the singular or sovereign prophet. For in fugitive time the prophet is the mass(es), the swarm of social movement as such.

I cannot help but hear Professor Heschel’s question—What does it mean to be moved?—in conversation with a tradition of black radical thought and the distinct notion of the sacred that is internal to this tradition and that drives its arts of escape, the arts of black rapture. The something-else-future that Professor Heschel’s language conjures or is reaching for is, like black radicalism’s poetics of the sacred, of an insurgent, dissident, rebellious, anti-doctrinal, and non-teleological future. Felt in the present, Professor Heschel’s question registers as a disturbance that is always already in play and that as such witnesses to an alternative present. Such a temporality, such a future, is radical. It is a future without frame, without foreclosure, marked by a peculiar kind of nonhumanist dispossession, movement outside of propertied self-possession.

To be under the claim of such a future is to be indebted to a future of something else coming, Heschel says, or that is “a’comin’,” to purloin from Judith Weisenfeld. And because it is a’comin’, it moves one into a different kind of now, a now that, again, exceeds the time of the human. This revised understanding of the future where the future is not merely what follows past and present suggests what might be called, defying grammatical convention, the tense of the future-now.

What might the future-now mean, where both “the now” and “the future” are unmoored from liberal humanist progressive narratives or temporalities (of death), unhooked from time schemes that presume the settler, or the sovereign, individuated subject? What could freedom released from settler time mean? And, what does this all mean for social movement(s), for a free Palestine, for Palestinian life in its adjacency to black life, and for a Jewishness released from Zionist-statist-settler logics and thus thought of as conspiring with, literally breathing with, blackness and Palestinianness, a Jewishness entangled in “blackpalestinian breathing”?

With Professor Heschel, I offer this answer which is not and cannot be one. At a minimum the tense of the future-now might be thought of as the opening of the imagination to the impossible. The tense of the future-now brings into view what settler time forecloses as not possible. Nevertheless the impossible surges through, fracturing time and history to announce another beginning. Genesis otherwise. The tense of the future-now is the tense, to borrow from Dawn Lundy Martin, of “unforeclosure” and the unforecloseable.

Unsettling settler time or the time of patriarchs and sovereigns, the tense of the future-now is marked, as experimental film maker and video artist Arthur Jafa has put it, by both tension and potential. Beyond time as given to us to shut down imagining the im/possible, the future-now discloses every instant as measureless, saturated by “potension.”

Could this be what moves a mo(ve)ment? Could it be that the tense of the future-now is nothing less than the tense of spirit-time, what is of the life (and) times of the unhuman wherein we are given to dwell with the earth even as we work to survive the settler world (of Man)? The riot, the rebellion then, is a threshold of the sacred where in passage we dwell in fugitivity’s future-now, rhythming “freedom time,” an alternative conception of time that presences an alternative present. Music-ing fugitive time is the creative, the ethical, the “poethical” task. . .Task of a homiletics of the unhuman, witnessing to a wounded, unspeakable joy . . . Task of something else a’comin’ . . .

(I dedicate this essay to a free Palestine)

[1]See Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, “Black and Palestinian Lives Matter: Black and Jewish America in the Twenty-First Century,” in On Anti-Semitism: Solidarity and the Struggle for Justice (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2017), 31–41.

[2]Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks (New York: Grove Press, Inc., 1967), 71.

[3]J. KameronCarter, “Black Malpractice (A Poetics of the Sacred).” Social Text 139 (forthcoming).

[4]The idea of “vitality” and “aliveness” reflects conversations with Quashie around his forthcoming book, Black Aliveness; or, The Being of Us.


*The opinions expressed in this piece do not represent the official opinions of Contending Modernities research initiative and the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies or their faculty and staff.

J. Kameron Carter
J. Kameron Carter is Professor of Religious Studies at Indiana University Bloomington. He works in black studies, theology and philosophy of religion, and literature and poetry. His book is Race: A Theological Account (Oxford University Press, 2008). He’s just finished a book manuscript titled American Religion: White Supremacy as Political Theology and he is in the final stages of another book project whose topic is blackness and/as the sacred.