R.A. Judy’s Sentient Flesh: thinking in disorder, poiēsis in black (Duke University, 2020) is a massive book in word-count, in density of thought, and in range of citation. I cannot comment here on Judy’s book in any thoroughgoing way and certainly will not attempt to capture its argument in categorical terms, much less provide a critical review. Resolutely writing against substantive thought and hence against ontology, Judy’s book performs an argument in flight. Its conceptual, syntactical flight is successful in that, when I turn my mind to it, when I want to say something about it in honor of its profound working on me (in a feat of sheer virtuosity, as Wendy Truran puts it), the very form of the text slips through my fingers. This book resists simple commentary, short catchphrases, and digestible take-aways.
Still, I find Sentient Flesh incredibly important for my continued reflection on social value and social valuation. The text writes me into a felt sense of how dispositions toward normed valuation are, for non-white bodies, constituted only through excruciating distortions.
I engaged this book with a few cherished interlocutors, and I came to refer to Judy’s semiological argument by the inadequate shorthand, ‘thinking the slash.’ What I mean by this is a kind of condensation of Judy’s imbricated disjunction– the “African/enslaved captive body” (p. 5)–and his reiterative discussion of its dimensions and consequences. Through this locution (together-apart), Judy signals how the vanishing person of the African semiological system is “liquidated” but also “coheres” in the slave-as-property. Put differently, the meaningfulness of the African semiological system—its ability to register and support bodies as persons—persists as “inoperative,” as “distorted but not eradicated” by the interdictions of the Atlantic slave trade and the resulting life of the enslaved captive, who is desirable only as property value and value-making property. The ineradicable slash between person and property indicates, distorts, and sets in flight semiological systems that cannot be synthesized but only lived or practiced “in disorder,” that is, in or through a kind of flight from each other, even as they asymptotically approach or continue to index or haunt one another. Such a dance around the slash is how I try to grasp Judy’s para-semiosis (“the dynamic differentiation operating in multiple multiplicities of semiosis that converge without synthesis”, xvii).
This dance around the slash mutates and supplements my understanding of Foucault’s account of the formation of the society of norms under industrial capitalism. By Foucault’s account, individuals are not character types so much as disposition types, caught up in the sticky webs of life that orient and attempt to dictate a person’s labor force and social relations. But in non-white bodies, the socio-political bell curve of normalization forms and assesses value systems that are incommensurable and mutually enfleshed, and that surge forth in the wake of histories that are past but not over (person/property).
Normalization generates an enacted range of social approbation and disapprobation; but for non-white bodies, for flesh-as-slash, the distributions of approbation and disapprobation are multiplicitous and unresolvable. Because of the distortions of slavery, for instance, the hard and competent labor of the non-white worker still registers as slothful (if not criminal); the acts of self-care still register as greed. It is crucial to ask not only what it might take for laziness to be transvalued to leisure, but also what “archives of entrapment” (Mbembe) condemn some bodies to the perduring distortions of the slash, and thereby condemn even virtue to be vice, even when this double condemnation does not deny all possibility of (an improper) joy, freedom and love.