On Black Feminist Opacity and Angst: Beyond (Self)Brand Optics and Pressures to Perform “Positivity”

This blog piece is based on my contribution to the 2022 International Communication Association (ICA) preconference on the topic of “Patriarchal Worlds, Feminist Networks, and the Conjuncture” on 26 May 2022.

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In the years since bell hooks (1984) articulated the voraciousness and violence of “imperialist whitesupremacist capitalist patriarchy”, media and marketplace dynamics have continued to reflect the intersections of structural oppression, state surveillance, and the commodification of identity politics. Hence, expressions such as “always on”, “virality”, and “representation matters” have become synonymous with consumer culture – namely, digital culture and its central (and often, invasive) role in many people’s lives.

Relatedly, words such as “amplify”, “promote”, and “platform” often heavily feature amid institutions’ claims to care – particularly about Black people. As Marcel Rosa-Salas and I argue in our recent paper, “…neoliberal capitalist rationality (specifically, the commercialisation of identity politics) plays a part in disciplining, managing, and marketing discourses about intersectionality, and demonstrates the entanglement between activist and marketing practices” (Rosa-Salas and Sobande 2022: 3).

What are the implications of this in terms of the contemporary experiences of Black feminists seeking to sustain themselves and the space to dream? 

This predominantly (but not exclusively) conceptual contribution today focuses on understanding some of the digital and activist experiences of Black feminists via the lens of opacity, which I view as being a lens that is attuned to the shifting ways that the work of Black feminists moves in and out of spaces perceived to be public.

By critically engaging with opacity there is the possibility of grasping aspects of Black feminism and intentionality that elude a societal preoccupation with representation and visibility. There is also the prospect of parsing different perceptions and experiences of publicness and privacy – both online and offline – without treating the all-consuming concepts of “mainstream publics” and “counterpublics” as fixed or foundational to understanding the lives of Black feminists. 

Although my discussion today includes a focus on activities, experiences, and emotions that exist beyond the optics and market logics of self-branding, I focus on how such matters also move beyond societal binaries of “seen”/“unseen” and “positive”/“negative”.

Beyond the Binary of “Seen”/ “Unseen” and “Positive”/“Negative”

Building on my prior writing on Black women’s digital disengagement, for POSTSCRIPT London (Sobande, 2022), I seek to outline what a turn towards opacity (and consequently, a release from and refusal of certain pressures, and a return to self) can entail. As part of this discussion, I conceptualise how such opacity is impacted by the affordances of different digital platforms, disengagement from them, and what I refer to as being expressions of angst and its iridescence.

While on the surface, my thoughts on this may appear to be enmeshed with embracing but not valourising emotions that are often societally deemed to be inherently pessimistic (E.g., angst), as I go on to explain, such reflections are rooted in a politics of hope that involves refusing to perform restrictive notions of positivity and pleasure, which tend to be tethered to a capitalist impetus that commodifies and consumes blackness – and often in ways that reinforce respectability politics.

There are three key parts to my contribution today. 1) Discussing what Black feminist opacity can involve and how it can contribute to the uncapturable quality of Black feminism, which brands are increasingly trying to market in an attempt to be regarded as activists themselves, 2) Considering the iridescence and imaginativeness of angst, including Black angst’s connection to (rather than commonly assumed disconnection from) joy, and 3) Reflecting on the relationship between opacity and the gathering of generative energy which is a process that requires elusiveness.

What I share today stems from a mix of empirical analysis, ongoing theorisations, personal experience, and continued conversations. I view my contribution as a pondering and provocation that may spark or add to discussion about the nature of opacity and angst, such as the angles from which we view it.

Black Opacity and Academia’s Acquisitive/Accusatory Reflexes

In the incisive words of Moya Bailey (2021: 170), “visibility can be reactionary or generative digital alchemy, depending on how it is leveraged”. Drawing on Bailey’s extensive work on misogynoir, Black feminism, and digital alchemy, along with Glissant’s (1997) Poetics of Relation, and Sulter’s (1985) body of work on Black women’s lives, I have been exploring how forms of Black feminist opacity occur in ways that play with the possibilities of reclaiming, retreating, releasing, and returning.

Especially shaped by vital work on digital Black feminism (Peterson-Salahuddin, 2022), including Catherine Knight Steele’s (2021) landmark book on the topic, I have been thinking about how Black feminist efforts to bypass visibility and recognition are not just part of strategies to subvert market logics (E.g., refusing to pander to pressures to self-brand and demands to forge a digital presence) – but are also part of practices to pursue personal peace and wellbeing in ways that honour boundaries and both their fluidity and rigidity.

Focusing on examples of Black feminist digital disengagement, witnessing, and ephemerality, this commentary considers the relationship between Black feminist opacity and efforts to protect peace (which is not always the same thing as privacy). Certainly, Black feminist opacity does not depend on the affordances of digital platforms. Still, it is necessary to acknowledge that elements of digital culture, including remixing practices, can be part of how Black feminists engage in the work of opacity. Therefore, opacity is not just about moving away from digital spaces, it is also about retreating to or finding refuge in them.

Digital remixing, including the creation and sharing of memes, can also be part of forms of “(Dis)Respect and Joy Online” which Kui Kihoro Mackay evocatively writes about with care. Although some forms of remixing result in tangible work such as film, photography, and music that is publicly shared, the process of remixing – digital and otherwise – can be embedded in interior experiences of dreaming, imagining, and reflecting in ways that involve deep dialogue with a sense of self, history, and the always present precipice of the future. The collision of digital remixing and opacity can result in the creation and sharing of remixed work in seemingly closed or intentionally short-lived digital spaces, the ephemerality of which is embraced rather than chastised.

To turn to the insightful work of Sarah Banet-Weiser (2018), the pervasive “economy of visibility” shows no signs of slowing down, and as hooks (1984) wrote about, the persistence of “imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” is palpable. However, Black feminists are continuing to express their agency and embrace themselves and each other in ways that challenge the demands and harms of visibility, while exploring and experimenting with self-expression beyond the binary of “seen” and “unseen” or “positive” and “negative”.

Academia’s reflexes often reflect the arrogance and aggrandizing nature of “imperialist whitesupremacist capitalist patriarchy”, which seeks to both capture and condemn Black knowledge(s). Those who glorify Western constructions of so-called “empiricism”, and who are intent on piously upholding a societal state of emotional repression, may find it uncomfortable to consider the concept of Black opacity and its focus on Black interiority which exists beyond a voyeuristic gaze.

Simultaneously defensive and accusatory responses to Black opacity can also involve individuals’ (un)intentional expressions of annoyance at the reality that Black opacity operates – in digital spaces and elsewhere – in ways that are illegible to them. Such discomfort with the elusiveness of Black opacity is expressed in many ways, including comments intended to “school” Black people, and calls that push for Black opacity’s transparency which can manifest as a compulsion with questioning what opacity “looks like”, and bad faith attempts to grasp its granular details. The persistence of such acquisitive questions, reflect precisely why Black opacity exists, and signal the societal normalisation of individuals and institutions responding to Black people from a proprietorial place of entitlement which they reframe as mere “interest” in Black lives.

From the creation and deletion of closed social media groups to the offline archiving of ephemeral online communications, Black feminists have been remixing digital processes, platforms, and possibilities for years. But acknowledging and reflecting on aspects of this should not be mistaken for a willingness to dissect Black opacity in digital spaces or to offer academia a rubric with which they can capture it. After all, opacity is just that – opaque – and should remain so. Impulses to “make it clear” may reveal more about normative epistemologies and the appropriative conventions of academia than they do about Black opacity. Furthermore, such harmful impulses are among a range of factors that contribute to experiences of Black angst, which I now turn my attention to.

The Iridescence and Imaginativeness of Angst

Too often angst is regarded as nothing other than inherently harmful, which is a perception that plays into the narratives of institutions that seek to sedate critique, including by marketing products, services, and even symbols of perceived “Black joy”, to “help” people to “self-soothe” (E.g., the “keep calm and consume” overtones of some marketing messages during the COVID-19 crisis).

My thinking on Black angst, and the iridescence and imaginativeness of angst in general (which shape shifts and appears differently depending on the vantage point and worldview from which it is observed) is based on an interest in “the politics, power, and possibilities of care and comfort, including by considering the animating force of angst that society often seeks to squash without addressing the structural issues that spark such feelings” (Sobande, forthcoming 2022).

In forthcoming work of mine on Consuming Crisis: Commodifying Care and COVID-19, I argue that Black angst can play a “crucial role in critiquing the carelessness of institutions, while also contributing to the celebration and sustenance of Black lives and space(s)” (Sobande, forthcoming 2022). While I attempt to avoid glamourising or fetishising Black angst, I also seek to think through how Black angst can contribute to, and, even, catalyse Black dreaming. At the same time, I acknowledge that throughout history, Black people’s experiences of angst have been dismissed and pathologised in innately racist and violent ways.

What is described as angst can involve generative forms of renouncing, self-preservation, and alertness to surroundings that have the potential to harm and/or change. Thus, Black angst is nuanced, layered, sometimes camouflaged, and always connected to many different states of being, such as the intentionality that drives people to come together as part of collective efforts to build a better future, and which moves people to turn away from platforms and places that are at odds with their peace and wellbeing.

As someone who can (and does) speak about angst at length, and as a 30 year-old who will likely never “grow out” of their “emo phase”, I have a lot of thoughts on the ways that discourse on angst has been directed and discarded during the COVID-19 crisis, but in the interest of time, today, I will try to keep them fairly brief.

Indeed, angst is a term associated with acute inner turmoil, and intense forms of uncertainty, but I argue that angst can play a powerful part in collectiveness and connections that may be essential to both survival and experiencing joy. Angst is sometimes a reminder of who and what you care about and just how much you do care, but in making this point I want to clarify that no two experiences of angst are the same, and I want to stress that I am trying to steer clear of romanticising angst while also recognising what angst can aid.

When institutions appear to be committed to coaxing people into a state of numbness, denial, or cognitive dissonance to avoid critique, angst can be an anchor to reality that assists the rebuking of such efforts and re-energizes community work to take care of each other. Angst can spur on how people refuse the ruse of rhetoric and representations that form political messaging. For these reasons, and more, for me, angst and hope often work in tandem, and it is angst – including about “imperialist whitesupremacist capitalist patriarchy” (hooks 1984) – that can stir expansive and enriching approaches to opacity.

What we can learn from The Balsamic Moon

Balsamic moons are sometimes referred to as “waning crescents” which are visible in the form of the last glimpse of lunar light before a new moon is born. Although the word “waning” is used as part of various descriptions of the moon in this elusive state, balsamic moons are beacons of energy and the restoration of it.

You might be wondering why I’m speaking about balsamic moons as part of a discussion of Black feminist opacity. Apart from the fact that I recently-deep dived a lot of birth chart and astrology information (which led me to learn more about balsamic moons), I’m mentioning them because I feel that what they represent and the potential that they hold in the moment that the last sliver of lunar light can be seen before its renewal, connects to the capacity contained within forms of Black feminist opacity.

Maybe the moon is the prime example of opacity in action. Even when it cannot be seen and is described as a “waning crescent”, its presence (or concern about the potential absence of it) is powerfully felt. In other words, the opaqueness of aspects of the moon seems to occur for important reasons which sustain it, and in turn, us. What does it mean to regard the intentional opacity of people in a similar way? – so, societally, rather than treating people’s active elusiveness as constituting a state of waning or mere withdrawal and disengagement, we recognise the power and protection in choosing to actively conceal aspects of the fullness of who they are?

The process of rebirth associated with balsamic moons is one that seems to be inherently connected to the way the moon appears to move in and out of sight (or at least, in and out of light). Put differently, there is a power in the moment that the moon motions towards disappearing, as well as a power and pause in the period of time when the moon is not visible in the sky.

Just as the balsamic moon is attributed a transformational quality, I view Black feminist opacity as involving a gathering of energy which results in experiences and expressions of reclaiming, releasing, retreating, and returning, such as by deleting, disengaging, and dialoguing in ways that escape the clutches of “imperialist whitesupremacist capitalist patriarchy” (hooks 1984).

Opacity – namely, Black feminist opacity – is not a deficit, nor is it a reactionary gesture. Rather, it is part of practices and commitments to self and collectiveness, that not only sustain but are also the source of pleasure and peace which may look and feel differently to manufactured, marketed, and manicured notions of “Black joy”.

My hope is that what I’ve shared today contributes to meaningful conversations about Black feminism and different dimensions and evasions of digital experiences and expressions of visibility.

References

Bailey, M. (2021) Misogynoir Transformed: Black Women’s Digital Resistance. New York, NY: New York University Press.

Banet-Weiser, S. (2018) Empowered: Popular Feminism and Popular Misogyny. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Glissant, É. (1997) Poetics of Relation. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press.

hooks, b. (1984) Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center. Boston: South End Press.

Kihoro Mackay, K. (2021) Digital Black Lives: Performing (Dis)Respect and Joy Online. The Sociological Review. Available at: https://thesociologicalreview.org/magazine/may-2021/digital-social-life/digital-black-lives/

Peterson-Salahuddin, C. (2022) Posting Back: Exploring Platformed Black Feminist Communities on Twitter and Instagram. Social Media + Society, January-March 2022: 1–13.

Rosa-Salas, M. and Sobande (2022) Hierarchies of knowledge about intersectionality in marketing theory and practice. Marketing Theory.

Sobande, F. (forthcoming, 2022) Consuming Crisis: Commodifying Care and COVID-19. London: SAGE.

Sobande, F. (2022) On digital disengagement and the lives of Black women in Britain. POSTSCRIPT. Available at: https://mailchi.mp/postscript/ch1-francesca-sobande-on-digital-disengagement-11228242

Steele, C. K. (2021) Digital Black Feminism. New York, NY: New York University Press.

Sulter, M. (1985) As a Blackwoman – Poems 1982-1985. London: Akira Press.