New World Disorder: Hannah Black

Hannah Black on the new world disorder

Tricky, “Brand New You're Retro,” 1995.

FOR MANY PEOPLE, 2016 was the year that a fantasy of progress contorted into exasperation: “I can’t believe it’s 2016 and people are still racist!” This feeling of belatedness is always beginning to give way to the evident fact that the passage of time alone, in either personal or collective historical life, is not enough to fix catastrophes. For a wound to heal, its cause has to stop. Thus transatlantic slavery, to give an important example, keeps insisting on its unhealed historical reality. An optimistic astonishment that a Black president was just as capable of presiding over drone bombings and lethal police as any other is now mirrored in the astonishment that not every single one of Trump’s outrages originated with his presidency, with many repeating the forms of oppression established by former US presidents. The disaster has already happened, and this is all aftermath.

For all the comparisons to European fascist dictators, a very uncomfortable truth is appearing in wider view: The USA is a white supremacist state since its foundation; the USA is white supremacy in action, alongside its allies, like my home country of Britain. Previous presidents have invoked an inhuman humanist ideology even while killing, imprisoning, disabling, and impoverishing millions. Trump’s shit feels new because he does not pretend to believe in the things these other presidents pretended to believe in: due process, checks and balances, careful paraphrases, inclusion. Because all these things have comfortably coexisted with horror, my anxiety at their collapse feels complicated, like I thought I’d pulled up all the roots of my habitual attachment to the present social order but find them still there, springing back like weeds, a truth about myself. Yet, despite the apparent novelty of all-American fascism, Trump’s shit feels old because it is old. Capitalists have been eating us alive for a very long time.

These monstrous times are primarily creations of the white imaginary: If “Jihadi Obama,” as the frog people call him, can be president, why not an elderly Hitler-cosplay kleptocrat? If Black people can rise up with the demand that the police stop killing them, the red hats ask themselves, why can’t white people rise up with the demand that they be allowed to kill whoever they like? When and where the glossy surface of capitalism frays, the apocalyptic and communal tendencies that are its contradictory engine get exaggerated. At all moments of capitalism, even without a Trumplike goblin to fan the flames, it rolls along at a frenetic pace of death-production, trapping people in poverty, labor, and disease.

If goodness is a category that cannot comfortably include the perpetrators of genocide, mass incarceration, and slavery, then there has never been a good president, although some do more violence than others. Some people have known this forever, but knowledge is complicated and doesn’t proceed naturally from either identity or experience.

What once appeared to me as ancient history giving a shimmer of interest to the family tree—the camp, the ship, the plantation—lately reveals itself as a continual unfolding in the present and the future. No one is inherently safe from the violence of capitalism, and whiteness is a violently upheld dream that safety is real. What once appeared as to-come—the fascist dystopia—in fact lies behind and all around us. Some people are smart or hurt enough to have known since forever how nothing has ever stopped happening, that the genocides and exclusions are ongoing and as urgent as when they were first enacted. How are the rest of us to grasp this gridlocked time? To understand the nature of capitalist society we must understand its foundational and ongoing violences. To understand our relation to the governments who issue our passports and regulate our lives, we collectively reencounter a deep and long-ago pain, as if for the first time. Though it can feel apocalyptic, this pain or fear of pain is not the end of the world, because there has never been a world: The image of a coherent world, a supplement to the ideology of whiteness, is upheld in the violence of the border, the nation, even the law. Let it go. In place of a world there is the disorganized and proximate texture of the everyday; there are close friends and closer enemies. There is the particular body. There is this room.

In an atmosphere of delirious threat, the newspapers report the President’s every move, from drone bombings to tweets, as if it were an extraordinary and never-before-seen phenomenon. “Fake news” and “alternative facts” abound, new terms for propaganda, and retroactively reveal a truth that you could learn in a high school classroom: that news, like history, is partial and partisan and has always been so. Everything that seems self-evident can be turned slightly and, in this altered light, appear as its opposite. And there is always the everyday shrug, the gaze that trains itself on the minute and pressing difficulties of everyday life, that get bigger and bigger the broker you are.

But it’s hard to shake the feeling of past and future, of better and worse. Last summer I was panicked by the Brexit referendum vote. All the various forms of dispossession that are my possession, my inheritance, loomed large in my head and just like in childhood I was delivered back to a fear of imminent apocalypse. I spoke to myself sternly: Go to Black neighborhoods where helicopters circle above and residents can be stopped by police at any moment for a list of infractions that include “furtive movements”—go there and say that you’re worried that there’s been a fascist coup. Go to Aleppo, to its ruins, and say you’re worried about the apocalypse.

Go anywhere and tell them that you think something bad might be happening. Everyone already knows, but it’s nice to be together and talk. I tell myself I won’t look at the news today. I have to work. In a cafe near Prospect Park, two strangers at a nearby table are in an intense discussion: “This atmosphere of white supremacy…” is the fragment I overhear. I get an email from my lawyer: “…the problems that some Iranian clients are having, which is a very sad reflection on the values of our country.” I go to buy a phone-charger, the salesman tells me he’s Pakistani but has been here for twenty years. “So you’re American now,” I say, making small talk. “After this week, I don’t even know any more,” he says, and we both laugh, for no reason at all. On a Facebook thread some people in London are horrified that an anti-deportation protest might disrupt train schedules. My friends are sad and afraid.

Environmentalists make much of the long historical time in which the full expanse of human life from the earliest peoples up until now has all taken place in the blink of an eye. In this long time, we are still reeling—a word that means both a dance and the preparation for a fall—from the catastrophes of transatlantic slavery and colonialism. This atmosphere of aftermath has been theorized by Christina Sharpe as in the wake of the slave ship. This prevails literally as our presence here, which comes after the slave ship, after the Holocaust, after the settler colony, and so on.

It’s too late and he just got started. It is too late even though we only just got started. It is too late even though many of us are young. It is too late, but it has been too late for a long time, and everything that happens is fated to happen belatedly, after its time, after its proper use. And yet we will go on finding belated uses for all the things rendered useless by their wrong time.

Hannah Black is an artist and writer from the UK.