Homi K. Bhabha | Thinking the Burdened Life with Fanon, Baldwin, and Coates

By Homi K. Bhabha

“I must constantly remind myself that the real leap consists of introducing invention into life.”

“At the start of his life, a man is always congested, drowned in contingency. The misfortune of man is that he was once a child.”

—  Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks (1952)

In the Nietzsche 13/13 seminar on Frantz Fanon, I will return to the “Look a Negro” scenario in Black Skin, White Masks as it repeats in James Baldwin and Ta-Nehisi Coates with a startling family resemblance. This has led me to think of the distinction between “security” and “safety—in conversation as well with Jeremy Waldron and Foucault. I would like to explore what I call “ethical risk” and put this concept in conversation with Fanon and the idea of “burdened life,” rather than bare life.

There is a conversation amongst writers who believe that close encounters with figures of death—loss, fear, risk, vulnerability, negation, the void—are testing grounds for the good life. Death, in this figurative sense, is an ethic of “ironic tenacity” in the face of injury and injustice. Levinas, alluding to what he calls “the death-life metaphor,” writes that “it is in being answerable for [the neighbour’s] life that we are already with [the Other] in death.” The side-by-side proximity of death-life repeats in the everyday emergencies of our present history—migration, climate change, racial deaths, targeted terror—and severely tests the method and mettle of our critical thinking.

People who are forced, each day and night, to snatch their authority from under ‘the foot on your neck,’ without hating the hater, develop a remarkable ethical resilience, Baldwin argues. To understand his version of the death-life metaphor, we must visualize Baldwin’s dialectic of reversal, his chiasmatic strategy for throwing off the foot on his neck to achieve his own authority—a resilient ethical agency.

A half century after The Fire Next Time, Coates borrows his title from a crucial phrase in Baldwin’s text—Between the World and Me—and takes on the challenge of ethical risk to conceive of a “vulnerable cosmopolitanism.” Coates’s insight into vulnerability as a worldly diasporic condition begins with his poetic intuition—preceding his political conviction—that there is an ethical lesson to be learnt in the acutely contradictory and ambivalent conditions of death-life that constitute the risky survival of the discriminated and disempowered. To survive the worst that life can bring, day by day, forces you “to look beneath appearances…and to hear the meanings behind the words.” And once you find yourself in possession of “other” interpretations and “alternative” realities, you are well on your way to inverting, reversing, and displacing the angle of visibility, in order to create your own “tantalizing contradictions,” at your own risk.

It is with this in mind that I will return to a Nietzschean-inflected reading of Fanon’s writings to explore questions of ethical risk and burdened lives.