Fred Moten’s Refusals and Consents: The Politics of Fugitivity

Published date01 April 2021
Date01 April 2021
Subject MatterPoetry & Politics
/tmp/tmp-18cbCTbwjog9zF/input 937375PTXXXX10.1177/0090591720937375Political TheoryShulman
Poetry & Politics
Political Theory
2021, Vol. 49(2) 272 –313
Fred Moten’s Refusals
© The Author(s) 2020
Article reuse guidelines:
and Consents: The
DOI: 10.1177/0090591720937375
Politics of Fugitivity
George Shulman1
This essay analyzes Fred Moten’s “antipolitical” romance with the “fugitive
black sociality” that he radically opposes to “politics,” defined as inescapably
tied to antiblack modernity. By comparing Moten’s argument to other
voices in the black radical tradition, and by triangulating Moten with Hannah
Arendt and Sheldon Wolin, this essay opens inherited conceptions of the
political to risk and reworking but also complicates figurations of fugitivity
and resists the antagonism Moten posits between black fugitivity and
democratic politics.
Fred Moten, Hannah Arendt, Sheldon Wolin, fugitivity, race, radical
democracy, black radicalism
If philosophy begins in wonder, as Plato says, perhaps political theories begin
in the perception and depiction of impasse. Figurations of deadlock, stuck-
ness, or stagnation, of being imprisoned in ideology, diminished by routiniza-
tion, or trapped in the past, are crucial in political thought—for example,
Plato’s cave, Jean-Jacque Rousseau’s corruption, Karl Marx’s 18th Brumaire,
Friedrich Nietzsche’s nihilism, Max Weber’s iron cage, Sigmund Freud’s mel-
ancholy, Hannah Arendt’s social, or Cavell’s skepticism, among numerous
1The Gallatin School, New York University, Brooklyn, NY, USA
Corresponding Author:
George Shulman, The Gallatin School, New York University, USA.

examples. Likewise, black political thought and literature can be seen as dra-
matizing both impasse and the problematic of making a way out of no way.
Modern political theory typically has disavowed the constitutive power of
empire and race as well as black engagement with them, but an underappreci-
ated way to relate these canons is seeing theory as a practice haunted by “apo-
ria,” translating a-poros or “no passage,” and therefore as a practice entailing
genre innovations to conjure passages to aliveness. In turn, significantly dif-
ferent figurations of apparently impassable contradictions or irresolvable pre-
dicaments recurrently inspire political visions whose effects readers can assess
as symptomatic—reifying or paralyzing—or as creative and mobilizing.1
This relation—between how theorists dramatize and explain impasse and
how they imagine and make available a possibility of aliveness—is obscured if
we proceed epistemologically rather than rhetorically. For if we take claims
about impasse as simply true or false, then validating whether we are “really”
in an impasse (and explaining why) seems the only issue. Instead of assuming
that exposing that truth will free us, I consider depictions of impasse as nomi-
nations that could be otherwise; as organizing fictions whose world-building
effects we must trace and assess; as speech-acts we can take up, revise, or
refuse. For poesis and praxis are inseparably joined; “fictionality,” embodied in
generative imaginative acts and genre innovation, is therefore not only a substi-
tute for reality in pathological senses but is the beating heart of reality, animat-
ing how we (re)make it. Then the alternative to entrapment by an organizing
fiction is not new information, facts, or purportedly self-evident truth but “fig-
ures of the newly thinkable,” as Cornelius Castoriadis put it, that help us
reframe what we already know and feel in newly salient, empowering ways.2
If different nominations of impasse yield different imaginative and politi-
cal efforts to make a way out of no way, then rationalism to figure it out, or
revolutionary suicide to muscle through, can be compared to idioms of tragic
inhabitation, radical imagination, action in concert, or fugitive ingenuity. The
issue of impasse thus involves genre, for the literary conventions that frame
our expectations of life and history also shape if and how we name an
impasse—how we reproduce, navigate, or contest it. It is no wonder, then,
that creative theorists rework genres they inherit. To think impasse and genre
together therefore poses the question by which Aristotle defined rhetoric:
what are the available resources—metaphor, idiom, narrative, genre—of per-
suasion? This two-sided dynamic—of dramatizing impasse and aliveness—
frames this essay’s exploration of how Fred Moten theorizes racial impasse,
and enacts what he calls the black radical tradition, through a trope of fugitiv-
. To assess the political and aesthetic resources in that trope, and its vexed
relations with the political, I will draw out Moten’s arguments but also imag-
ine a conversation with Sheldon Wolin’s “fugitive democracy” by way of

Political Theory 49(2)
their critiques of the notorious binary Hannah Arendt used to rescue the fugi-
tive natality of politics from “the social” as a deadening impasse.3
On the one hand, each theorist narrates a catastrophic modernity at an
impasse, as instrumental rationality, biopolitical sovereignty, managerial norms,
possessive individualism, and liberal forms of representation authorize what
Tocqueville called democratic despotism. Each opposes “what is called politics”
as Thoreau once put it, to defend a revolutionary treasure, less from direct domi-
nation and more from devitalizing incorporation into the institutions and codes
of modern (liberal) order. As each refuses the genre of a “democracy” at home
in Leviathan, each rejects prevailing genres of theory (Moten and Wolin say
“critique”) at home in an academy serving it. To defend a practical and theoreti-
cal vitality that is endangered—made fugitive—by forms of (even “demo-
cratic”) rule, each conjures spaces and practices of creative action and thought
to refuse and evade if not undo the organized powers dominating modernity.
Rather than depict a choice between optimism or pessimism, each inhabits mod-
ern impasse to enable an aliveness it seems to foreclose. Each would foster what
Jonathan Lear calls “a possibility for new possibilities.”4
But obviously, Moten’s premise of empire and slavery entails decisive dif-
ferences. For, though Wolin rejects Arendt’s devaluation of the social and
anchors “fugitive democracy” in experiences of sociality he calls commonal-
ity, he shares her investment in the political as a vitalizing, even redemptive
practice, whereas Moten deems commonality, citizenship, and politics irre-
deemably contaminated by the constitutive power of the antiblackness neither
Arendt nor Wolin see. Moten thus composes an “antipolitical romance” with
“black sociality,” which he depicts as bearing “fugitive” forms of natality and
commonality, and which he opposes to “politics” as ordinarily practiced and
to “the political” as canonically theorized. Indeed, he insists that the vitality of
black sociality requires refusal of any (even radically democratic) notion of
the political and of formalized or institutionalized practices of organizing
power. In a modern impasse created as politics and theory wed antiblackness
and rule, he sees black fugitivity flourishing as an antipolitical, vernacular
genre, a poesis of explicitly “informal” form-giving in performance and
music, in ordinary practices of collaboration and reflection, and in prophecy.
How can fugitivity be invoked to redeem and yet also to refuse both the politi-
cal and democratic? My answer traces their divergent figurations of modern
impasse and fugitive aliveness to highlight both the stakes in how they imag-
ine the political and race, and the rhetorical practices and genre conventions
by which they do so. My goal is to show why political theorists should think
black life and radical democracy—black fugitivity and fugitive democracy—
together, albeit in tensions that can be acute, and not always fruitful. I empha-
size Moten’s work, though, because of its challenges to radical democracy and

democratic theory. Taking it seriously means facing the impulse to “defend
politics” in ways that merely repeat the very terms he questions, that reiterate
the very hopes for democracy he insists are foreclosed by antiblackness. But,
if we credit the truths about antiblackness and the political that animate his
refusals, and so inhabit his empowering vision of fugitivity as a poetics and
praxis, then we can find resources to revise—to enlarge, complicate, enrich—
what we count as political, despite his own rejection. For his vision of fugitiv-
ity not only models insurgent and aesthetic aspirations to refuse rule and evade
capture by it, but also models what Robert Cover calls a “juris-generative”
capacity to make nomos, as a web of meaning or ordering grammar that gives
form to life in vitalizing, not deadening, ways. The poesis-as-praxis that Moten
calls fugitivity thus offers not only a social and aesthetic alternative to “poli-
tics” as such, as he argues, but resources for re-imagining the form and content
of a radically democratic politics.5
Inflecting his refusal, by showing how the political remains both inescap-
able and valuable, is important in part because his “romance” of black social-
ity abstracts from structures of inequality in the “undercommons,” inequalities
that at once bespeak and require “politics,” and in part because...

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT