The death of an author brings her into sudden proximity. As I sit in front of my computer with a lump in my throat, going through obituaries celebrating her life, art, politics, and pedagogy, I pause to reconnect these to the urgencies of the contemporary moment. Especially when it is a moment that requires the powerful, scathing, deeply human voice of a writer like Toni Morrison. Her relevance, over and above her monumental contribution to creative and critical expression, and therefore her absence, is keenly felt.

Morrison died on a day that witnessed the trembling of a democratic ethos anchored in constitutional safeguards and civil liberties. Through newsflashes about curfew and siege in Kashmir, I thought of her brilliant, razor-sharp indictment of cultures of censorship and incarceration in an essay, whose title feels more apt than ever: “Peril”. (Burn This Book)

Over the past week as I have been going over her works, in a world substantially altered from when I first encountered some of them, Morrison’s passion for pluralism, dialogue, and diversity, and her commitment to promoting artistic and journalistic freedoms, has brought her closer - in a manner resembling the closeness many aspiring black women writers and students often felt to her monumental yet grounded persona. To me, this, more than anything else, is a sign of Morrison’s greatness: The capaciousness of her ideas, the ductility of her prose, the scope of her political vision to remain rooted in its American context, and also to speak eloquently to the crises informing her reader’s local landscape.

Since then, I have spent time with her nonfiction collected in a timely anthology that came out in February 2019, finding intellectual sustenance and political meaning in her words. While her fiction remains an indisputable tour de force of revisionist historiography and aesthetic radicalism, her essays, lectures, and speeches take on the monoliths of neoliberal imperialism and right-wing capitalism, and expose the nexus between racism and “its succubus twin fascism.” (“Racism and Fascism”) The Source of Self Regard is imbued with tireless critique and self-reflexivity, putting assumptions, myths, stereotypes, truisms, and habits, including the author’s own, to the test of troubled times and their specific ethical needs.

The apparatus of racism

Morrison opened her generous, empathetic heart and incisive mind to many concerns, communities, styles, and audiences in her writings: The history of racial relations, the continuity between the trans-Atlantic slave trade, nineteenth-century imperial formations, modern-day migration of “workers, intellectuals, refugees...immigrants,” state intervention through “persecution, exile, violence, and poverty,” (“The Foreigner’s Home”) and the cultural and economic cannibalism on which contemporary globalisation rests. She discussed the structural homologies between the plunder of material resources during the course of the colonisation of the globe by the west, and the violation of the body of the languages of the oppressed, the “systematic looting of language” through suppression, appropriation, and erasure of nuance and difference.

She wrote fiercely and precisely about how modern technologies of neoliberal nation-building deploy the figure of the “foreigner,” “the alien,” and “the outsider” to protect through paranoia, policing, and incarceration, presenting its fragile, illusory, and narcissistic representation of itself as bounded and autonomous. Morrison showed that in order to understand racism in its entirety one needs to first and foremost grasp the construction of a racialised imaginary: The primary mode or logic of meaning-making in a culture through which racial identities are configured and naturalised – its dominant symbols, binaries, and figurative commonplaces, the strategies it uses for mediating and manipulating what is visible and what remains invisible.

In pieces like “Rememory” and “Goodbye to All That,” Morrison argues that race is not just a mechanism of ordering economic and social relations, or even a mere reference to the colour of a person’s skin, although the latter becomes its most abused signifier. Rather, race is the apparatus for ordering the very appearance of what constitutes reality, what Jacques Ranciere in a different context calls “the partition of the sensible” – an image or a cluster of images that are supported by and distributed through the narratives that structure how individuals and societies normatively see, hear, perceive and interpret the world.

Annihilation of language

Morrison’s analysis of social injustice and institutional malaise is excoriating, yet her writing is permeated by a tenderness I have encountered in few writers. In her eulogy for the victims of the September 11 attacks, Morrison embraces a philosophy of suspension, holding space for the disjointed time of death and mourning by surrendering all predetermined criteria of judgment and analysis, including moral categories of good and evil. An event of such magnitude becomes an occasion for unlearning. The violence of its unfolding can only be addressed by translating it into an epistemic violence that demolishes existing paradigms of knowledge:

“First I would freshen my tongue, abandon sentences crafted to know evil...I would purge my language of hyperbole, of its eagerness to analyse the levels of wickedness; ranking them, calculating their higher or lower status among others of its kind.”

— “The Dead of September 11”

This performative annihilation of language, including the language of analysis and conceptuality, becomes a ritual that absorbs the horror of mass annihilation at the level of the writer’s subjectivity and praxis. Writing at degree zero is Morrison’s assertion of a destitute ethics that allows her to carry out the work of grieving, as well as acknowledge the predicament of her position within a system that is complicit in this catastrophe.

Morrison’s address to “the September dead” ends with a frank avowal of muteness, the failure of words, and of the function of language as the basis of communication and community. This linguistic inconsolability gives way to a “gesture, this thread thrown between your humanity and mine” of holding “you in my arms.” Morrison’s wordless embrace, her definition of communion at the limits of meaning, as she reminds the “ancient atoms you have become” of the freedom (“release”) that is eternity, embodies the paradox of closeness that is also an act of liberating the other.

A pertinent legacy

This short essay strikes me as emblematic of Morrison’s ability to weave compassion, intimacy, and nurture into the language of political analysis or literary activism, of her desire for dressing the wounds of institutionally mandated or state-sponsored injuries against marginalised communities, with the treasures of touch, caress, listening, gazing, and caregiving. The confrontation with atrocity, whether it is slavery, racial injustice, and violence towards African Americans, the rampant and compulsory Americanisation of the Global South, the rising tide of fascist ideologies across the globe, intolerance towards immigrants and the working class, or the muzzling of the press, is carried out in her essays with a turn towards alternative possibilities.

What are these alternatives? What kind of language does Morrison use to configure them? How does she integrate the indelible history of her origins, her primary concern with the making and consolidation of race as a tool of displacement and oppression in America, with her commitment to issues of increasing securitisation of public spaces, the policing of black, immigrant, and labouring bodies, and the endemic presence of white supremacist aggression?

These are concerns that, in the wake of the recent escalation of gun violence across America or the human rights violations at American border detentions, acquire a definite urgency. How does Morrison speak to us today, and what aspects of her legacy become even more pertinent in the ethical guidance and critical vocabularies that they provide?

Fascism as technology

Morrison’s essay “Racism and Fascism” contains perhaps one of the strongest, most prescient and cogent analyses of fascism to emerge in contemporary writing. In three dextrous strokes, the essay deconstructs fascism as a technology, associated in its modern avatar with capitalist greed, of governance through the construction of an enemy that is demonised, silenced, criminalised, and pathologised; as a “marketing for power,” a “virus” rather than an ideology, that can occupy any political field, liberal or conservative; and as an array of recognisable signs through which it reproduces itself locally and globally: The desire to “purge” society of authentically democratic facets, the monopolisation of public infrastructure and services by private profit, and the transvaluation of the human subject as a producer of consumables instead of a being capable of compassion and generosity. Fascist formations are not limited to modes of governance; their provenance extends to society’s objects of self-articulation, primarily language.

In her Nobel Lecture, Morrison laments the impoverishment of language through its conversion into an apparatus of the state and its institutions for furthering bureaucratic and disciplinary motivations: “Sexist language, racist language, theistic language – all are typical of the policing language of mastery and cannot permit new knowledge or mutual exchange of ideas.” Through an evocative retelling of an encounter, narrated in an African folktale, between a sagacious old woman disenchanted with the world and a group of playful children soliciting attention and answers, Morrison sets up a dialogue between criticality and creative interpretation, experience and curiosity, the past and the future.

An artist’s response to “obscuring state language,” “calcified language of the academy,” or “legal discourses of exclusion” cannot be a reiteration in the same “unyielding language” of this topography of linguistic decay. Instead, the writer’s task demands the engendering of a new semantics in which expressive components are dissociated from these institutional and instrumentalist contexts and made to signify differently: “Is there no words you can give us that help us break through your dossier of failures?”

“Tell us your particularised world”

Morrison’s book of literary criticism Playing in The Dark focusses with depth and acuity on the value-laden nature of the seemingly innocuous aspects of form: metaphors, narrative devices, imagery, and emplotment, to show how racial stereotypes and assumptions inhabit the aesthetic domain. In her exhortation to the black literary archivist to resuscitate the “languishing” “heart” of language, Morrison revisits this premise, to dramatise the scene of analysis as an open-ended dialogue leading to collaborative answers, between the scholar / writer / activist and her audience, one that dismantles “the barrier” “between generosity and wisdom.”

In order to dilute the oppressive and sterile jargon of languages manufactured in the foundries of modern institutions and their calculative frameworks, we have to wonder about what language can do, what nuances and registers of experience, emotion, and corporeal sensation it can accommodate and what might be the terms of such accommodation.

Morrison’s suggestion of an alternative is the invention of a new kind of narrative language that radicalises representational standards, troubling fixed notions of centre, periphery, chronology, causality, and coherence: “Tell us your particularised world” she urges. Disturbing the norms of representation enables the transformation of those anthropological and juridical constructs via which racial identity is understood and reproduced.

Like the category of the foreigner, the black subject gets trapped in linguistic conventions and representational shorthands, and the task of the black artist is to demystify these by prising open the structure of representation, and expanding the possibilities of meaning formation and knowledge production in ways that render these hospitable to microhistories, intimate and unofficial archives, and the myriad dimensions of African American experience.

In “The Source of Self-Regard” Morrison discusses Jazz as an alternative language that creates a correspondence between aesthetic style and shifts in the black community’s conceptions of personal autonomy and individual worth. Jazz’s defiance of classical musical rules, its emphasis on improvisation, its elevation of energy and tempo, make it an appropriate medium for embodying the new ways in which African Americans at the turn of the century start perceiving themselves as subjects with agency and control over their art, bodies, and pleasures.

Path to justice

How does the black writer challenge and change the entrenched vocabulary of racism?

What political significance do these alternative ways of thinking and writing about history, racial identity, social injustice, and interpersonal relations carry, especially as conduits of recovery, reclamation, and speaking back?

How to use a language, its resources, its grammar and semantics without reproducing the power structures that have historically inhabited it?

How and through what ethical optic does one create art from within those very representational traditions and forms that have participated in effacing or reducing the complexity of black existence while justifying the continued oppression of blacks?

How to realise personal and authorial sovereignty as a descendant of former slaves, through the very discourses of freedom, individuality, and agency that inform ideologies of western liberal personhood and white supremacist capitalism?

Morrison’s essays on her own negotiation with historical material and literary language attempt to chart a map of possibilities for these tasks. She explains the difficult process of encountering the historical narrative of Margaret Garner’s escape from the plantation where she was indentured and her choice of killing her infant daughter rather than surrendering her to slave owners.

This material, which became the basis for Beloved, poses a unique challenge to Morrison, that of recasting the slave woman through paradigms that are not merely those of victimisation, violation, and torture, and of rewriting her story in a way that nuances this negative history with possible alternative sources of value and agency for the character based on Margaret.

This method has several implications for the African American novel, for established epistemologies of history (what constitutes a historically valid narrative, what are the legitimate sources for historical research, what are the accepted templates for presenting historical knowledge) and for fictional constructions of racial identity. Thus in order to change dominant negative stereotypes of black identity while interrogating at the same time those white liberal models of autonomy at the basis of imperial and racist attitudes, the writer needs to combine history that relies on empiricist languages of information, data, objectivity, and facts, with history written in modes of imagination, speculation, fiction and poetry.

Morrison’s writing is invested in the cultivation of this porous threshold between history as record, statistics, and testimony, and what Saidiya Hartman has recently called an “archive of the exorbitant,” (Wayward Lives) between the language of sociological and political investigation, exposure, and analysis, and the expansion of this analytical discourse to accommodate the textures of memory, trauma, eroticism, pain, and labour.

“I wanted my imagination as unencumbered as possible and as responsible as possible. I wanted to carve out a world both culture specific and ‘race-free.’” This paradox of being located in a particular history while resisting the determinisms of historical narratives, of inhabiting it “without surrendering to it,” of operating in language while disabling traces of fascist, technocratic, and capitalist vocabularies, is at the heart of Morrison’s politics and ethics.

While the chimera of transcending race, like the illusions of multiculturalism and cosmopolitanism through which western capitalism perpetuates itself, is deeply racist in itself, to catapult to cultural essentialism as a means of preserving black identity runs the risk of becoming ethnocentric and incapable of combating the stereotypes that have been and are used to repress blacks and persons of colour.

For Morrison, the path to justice was through the rigorous practice of pluralism and dialogue, and racial restitution interminably linked with work that addresses other humanitarian crises. Her approach to oppression, dispossession, and censorship went beyond black lives into terrains of true intersectionality. By showing with an irrepressible brilliance of analysis paired with a deeply empathetic, thoroughly humane imagination, the interconnectedness of various kinds of violence and oppression, she illuminated the shape of resistance and the task of building alternatives as being an intersectional one. Morrison’s words for James Baldwin are equally true for her:

“When that unassailable combination of mind and heart, of intellect and passion was on display, it guided us through treacherous landscape, as it did when you wrote these words – words every rebel, every dissident, revolutionary, every practising artist from Cape Town to Poland, from Waycross to Dublin, memorised...” 

— “James Baldwin Eulogy"

In these troubled times, Toni Morrison’s words become a navigational compass through our own treacherous landscapes.