Swarthmore College

When we hosted a conversation in February with Katherine McKittrick and Nick Mitchell moderated by Nina Johnson, we were eager to learn about the points of connection in the work of these scholars. We knew McKittrick’s interest in the geographic dimension of Black ways of knowing and Mitchell’s attention to the manifold ways that the university manages surplus were distinctly interwoven. As we continue to dwell on the conversation, we wanted to highlight four particular convergences that we have found productive for thinking through their work, as well as for engaging how their conversation intersects with the work of other scholars.

A quick note about how this post works. Under each category, we link to one or two moments from the conversation event. We use parenthetical citations when referencing texts beyond the conversation. More on those particular texts and others, can be found in an expanded annotated bibliography at the bottom of this post.

 

On Relationality and Black Thought

Afropessimism and Relationality

Both McKittrick and Mitchell take care to avoid uncritically repeating—and thus reenacting—forms of racial violence in their work. McKittrick pursues this through her focus on relationality and, following Sylvia Wynter’s legacy, her emphasis on the need to describe modes of being human beyond that of the West’s totalizing formulations of homo politicus and homo oeconomicus. McKittrick avoids conceptualizing blackness and geography in ways that inextricably yoke them to the repetition of black death “over and over again” (“On Plantations” 954). She wants to re-historicize the “history of the human” in ways that invite decolonial practices that have been foreclosed by operating in the contemporary biocentric order (“Geographies of Blackness” 240).

Mitchell takes on a similar project, if in a more oblique way, in his discussion of Afropessimism. Mitchell demonstrates the necessity of a black politics and radicality that starts from “somewhere” rather than “a modern world predicated on a structure that produces the slave’s unceasing suffering” (“View” 121). The latter, which Afropessimism establishes, elides the contextualizing factors of class, in particular, flattening how “the structural interplay between race and class shapes the overall geographies of policing.” Put differently, Mitchell’s engagement with the edges of Afropessimist thought highlights how certain theoretical approaches obscure the concrete instantiations of place and time that are necessary for the formation of solidarity. In a way, Mitchell offers a more localized critique of the wider claim that McKittrick expresses in geographical terms when acknowledging that black space and ways of knowing are not exclusively cathected to repeating black death.

 

On the University and Time

Intellectuals and University Time

As Mitchell put it during the conversation: “I need my job to be less job.” He critiques the compression of the self into a space defined solely by the university and the relation to time this linkage engenders. One no longer has a distance (critical or not) from their job at the university when it monopolizes all waking hours, summer “break” included. Mitchell agrees with McKittrick that this acceleration of time in the academy creates particularly inhospitable conditions for cultivating the work of intellectuals like Sylvia Wynter and Hortense Spillers. Constant deadlines and pressures accelerate the production of scholarship, while simultaneously degrading the conditions to think with that scholarship; in this contemporary framework, where the product is prioritized over process, Mitchell wonders, could a work like Spillers’ “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe” ever emerge?

While Mitchell places much more emphasis on time in the specific context of the university, McKittrick by no means ignores the subject. She considers futures at length. Her desire to read the plantation and its legacy—a legacy inclusive of the university with its plantocratic aspects—as opening up potentiality for black life highlights her work’s engagement with a liberatory conception of time. Importantly, the plantation for McKittrick is defined in part by being a site of plot, the large and small scale acts and thoughts of rebellion, the taking back of land and sociality amongst the people enslaved, and the formation of a space-making and knowing-practice beyond the plantocratic imagination. Indeed, McKittrick could be seen as offering a macroscopic perspective to the issue that Mitchell acutely diagnoses.

 

On Interdisciplinarity

Liberation and Interdisciplinarity

Mitchell and McKittrick approach the notion of interdisciplinarity in their work, albeit in slightly different ways. McKittrick focuses on interdisciplinarity as something almost akin to a methodology. Her view of black studies as an interdisciplinary project looks at “how we come to know black life through asymmetrically connected knowledge systems” (Dear Science 3). Yet interdisciplinarity is not reduced to disciplines within the academy. Indeed, Dear Science is premised on storytelling and stories as modes of knowledge-making, a genre rendered “outside” academia’s traditional boundaries.

Mitchell complements this view by investigating how black studies became what it is today and putting pressure on “the extent to which its institutional lineage is so bound to the belief that it emerged as the direct result of the black movements of the 1960s” (“Disciplinary Matters” 5). In engaging how black studies and women’s studies emerge prior to their institutionalization within the academy, Mitchell’s work does not so much address what these disciplines are but takes a historical approach to how they have been transmogrified and deployed within the university. In attending to the genealogy of black studies, he offers a self-reflexive view on the subject that grounds McKittrick’s further examination of it. Put differently, Mitchell offers a context for interdisciplinarity as a knowledge-making practice outside and through the academy before the academy’s claim on the practice.

 

Intellectual Lineage

Wynter, Mitchell, and McKittrick

In the conversation, McKittrick and Mitchell recounted how the foundation of their relationship emerged through their individual relationships with Sylvia Wynter. While McKittrick was compiling a dialogue with Wynter that became the centerpiece of her edited volume, Sylvia Wynter: On Being Human as Praxis, Mitchell was working with Wynter as a “research assistant,” typing and discussing her handwritten manuscripts and on occasion coordinating her email. This foundation for their relationship occasions a consideration of the influence of Wynter’s thought on their work, as well as other thinkers who were mentioned as shared touchstones.

In McKittrick’s work, Wynter’s thought provides breathing room. Wynter offers a “space to rethink” (Demonic Grounds 143). Wynter’s focus on surfacing possibilities for life beyond biocentric frameworks, which merely repeat and rearticulate racial violences, is directly picked up by McKittrick. Yet while Wynter writes these new ways of life in more general terms, McKittrick thinks about them geographically to show how we might create new possibilities through spatialization.

While Mitchell’s thinking—at least in his written academic work—seems more removed from the immediate influence of Wynter, he does attend to and investigate her status as an intellectual. He pays attention to the structural conditions of the university, elements like university timeframes, that allow for or foreclose upon the possibility of intellectuals like Wynter. Similarly, he examines the connections between the intellectual, the university, and critique, and expresses the need for critical intellectuals to recognize their relationship with the university lest they stray from their purpose. 

Of course, Wynter is only one influence on McKittrick and Mitchell. Listed below are some of the other thinkers (and their relevant works) mentioned in their conversation:.

 

 


Annotated List of Further Reading

Katherine McKittrick

Demonic Grounds: Black Women and the Cartographies of Struggle (Minnesota, 2006)

  • McKittrick’s first book, Demonic Grounds stages a conversation between black studies—and black feminism specifically—and human geography. She examines the spatialization of blackness and racial violence against ongoing attempts to see that black subjects are “rendered ungeographic” (x). She focuses on the need to respatialize black women’s geographies and create new “new forms of life” outside of current geographical practices that serve to reinforce and repeat racial violences (143).

“Plantation Futures,” small axe (2013)

  • McKittrick’s essay begins with the contemporary discovery of a gravesite that interred the remains of twenty thousand enslaved black people. Taking this as her starting point, she maps the logic of the planation and reveals it as a blueprint for more modern forms of anti-black violence. However, McKittrick has little interest in weaving a tale of woe; instead, she takes the plantation as an occasion for the discussion of the possibilities of black life. Yet just as she strays away from taking the plantation as the site of ceaseless re-enactments of black death, she avoids uncritically glorifying them as places of resistance. While plantations are blueprints—albeit ugly ones—for modern spaces of dispossession, they simultaneously open up to decolonial poetics and black futures.

“On Plantations, Prisons, and a Black Sense of Place,” Social and Cultural Geography (2011) 

  • In this essay, McKittrick looks at what a black sense of place entails and how we locate historical struggles against racism—especially in conjunction with ongoing attempts to render blackness as placeless. The plantation and the violence embedded are undeniably re-enacted in more contemporary contexts, yet we should not take this as foreclosing on other possibilities. Indeed, McKittrick examines discussions of urbicide as places of black death to reveal how such concepts reify racial violences through necessitating an us/them dichotomy. McKittrick instead centers human relationality and escapes these biocentric frameworks and repetitions of anti-blackness. 

The Geographies of Blackness and Anti-Blackness,” interview with Peter James Hudson, The CLR James Journal (2014)

  • This short interview reveals the foundations of McKittrick’s intellectual project in digestible prose. She takes the reader through both her personal upbringing and her intellectual roots, explicitly situating herself in relation to Sylvia Wynter, Frantz Fanon, and other theorists. She touches on her interest in black Canadian studies and offers her own insights into what pedagogy within this framework might resemble. She concludes by offering a gloss of her project dealing with the spatialization of racial violence and possibilities for black futures that do not “repeat and cherish… black death” (240).

Dear Science and Other Stories (Duke, 2020)

  • In this collection of eponymous ‘stories,’ McKittrick examines the various ways we come to know about blackness. She claims these methods as “asymmetrically connected knowledge systems” and, accordingly, looks beyond traditional ways of knowing to situate these methodologies in “living interdisciplinary worlds” (3-4). Her work is just as much about ways of living—”black livingness”—as it is about black methodologies (7). As McKittrick works through these stories, she generates an ethical distance between them and us, then and now, and lets us learn without falling into the trap of “knowing totally” (12).

“Mathematics Black Life,” The Black Scholar (2014)

  • In this essay, McKittrick examines how anti-blackness can manifest in mathematical and arithmetic forms. She looks at slavery as “intimately linked” to practices of enumeration and asks how we can escape pure, mathematical repetitions of anti-black violence (22). McKittrick finds that these forms do not eclipse black life and, through new forms of being human, we may avoid ceaseless repetitions black death.

 

Nick Mitchell

“(Critical Ethnic Studies) Intellectual,” Critical Ethnic Studies (2015)

  • In this brief essay, Mitchell clarifies the relationship between the intellectual and the university. He explains that intellectuals occupy an unusual position: they both critique the university—and thus attempt to downplay their affiliation with it—while simultaneously remaining adjacent enough to it such that they remain persuasive. 

“Diversity” in Keywords for African American Studies (NYU, 2018)

  • Mitchell traces the genealogy of “diversity” from its 12th century French connotation of negative differences to the contemporary American meaning of positive reform. He examines the use of the term in the context of education—and particularly affirmative action—while also turning his gaze towards its function in contemporary capitalism. He suggests we embrace the critical tendency latent within “diversity” to offer us leverage over racial capitalism.

“Summertime Selves (On Professionalization),” The New Inquiry (2019)

  • Mitchell discusses the culture of work within higher education and argues professors (and students) are expected to work constantly—even during their supposed summer “vacation.” Summers never grant us true breaks and often exacerbate existing problems around pay and abuse. He shows this constant imbrication with the university leads to a sense of self with little to no separation from the university, literally wedding us to our work.

“Abolitionist University Studies: An Invitation” with Abigail Boggs, Eli Meyerhoff, and Zach Schwartz-Weinstein (2019)

  • Written for an activist audience as well as an academic one, this piece offers a genealogy of the university as a site of accumulation complicit in settler colonial and racial capitalist regimes. Mitchell and his co-authors outline the contemporary forms of accumulation the university is involved in, and then ask what it would mean to take an abolitionist stance towards it. However, for them, abolition is not purely negative and they invite the reader to consider the new possibilities of resistance and academic relationships that this approach to the university brings.

“The Fantasy and Fate of Ethnic Studies in the Age of Uprising,” interview with Zach Schwartz-Weinstein, Undercommoning (2016)

  • This interview focuses on both Mitchell’s life and academic work, but centers on the politics and political economy of black studies and the university as a whole. He expounds on the academy’s relationship to labor and how graduate students and adjuncts play key roles in the university, and calls on us to “denaturalize” this political economy and reveal its exploitative function.

“The View from Nowhere,” Spectre (2020)

  • In this piece, Mitchell reviews Frank Wilderson’s part-autobiographical, part-theoretical work Afropessimism. In it, Mitchell situates the emergence and development of Afropessimist thought within its most commonly found location: the university. He shows which factors—such as class—need to be obscured, overlooked, or disappeared for Afropessimism to function as Wilderson wants it to. Mitchell shows that to hold analytic utility, we cannot rely on Afropessimism and its theoretical flattening—its “view from nowhere”—but must instead start from “somewhere.”
About the Author

Aidan McKay is a junior studying sociology and interpretation theory. His research interests include mass surveillance/surveillance capitalism, the history of Irish Republicanism, and the work of the Frankfurt School.

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Andy Hines is the Associate Director of the Aydelotte Foundation. He studies models of the university posed by Black writers and Black social movements, as well as the significant but understudied contributions of Black writers to literary criticism and theory.

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April 15, 2021
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