This essay proposes that we turn to James Baldwin’s work to assess the cost of, and think alternatives to, the cultures of traumatization whose proliferation one witnesses in contemporary U.S. academia. Beginning with some recent examples, the essay briefly places these cultures into a genealogy of onto-ethics whose contemporary forms arose with the reconfiguration of diasporic histories in the idioms of psychoanalysis and deconstructive philosophy in 1990s trauma theory. Baldwin speaks to the contemporary moment as he considers the outcome of trauma’s perpetuation in an autobiographical scene from “Notes of a Native Son.” In this scene—which restages Bigger Thomas’s murderous compulsion in Native Son—he warns us against embracing one’s traumatization as a mode of negotiating the world. In foregoing what Sarah Schulman has recently called the “duty of repair,” such traumatized engagement prevents all search for the kind of “commonness” whose early articulation can be found in Aristotle’s query after “the common good” (to koinon agathon). With Baldwin, the present essay suggests the urgency of returning to the question of “the common good”: while mindful of past critiques, which have observed in this concept’s deployment a sleight-of-hand by which hegemonic positions universalize their interests, we should work to actualize the unfinished potential of Aristotle’s idea. Baldwin’s work on diasporic modernity provides an indispensable archive for this effort.
Taking its cue from recent scholarly work on the concept of time in African American
literature, this essay argues that, while both James Baldwin and Malcolm X refuse
gradualism and insist on “the now” as the moment of civil rights’ fulfillment, Baldwin
also remains troubled by the narrowness assumed by a life, politics, or ethics limited to
the present moment. In his engagement with Malcolm’s life and legacy—most notably in One
Day, When I Was Lost, his screen adaptation of Malcolm’s autobiography—he works toward a
temporal mode that would be both punctual and expansive. What he proposes as the operative
time of chronoethics is an “untimely now”: he seeks to replace Malcolm’s unyielding
punctuality with a different nowness, one that rejects both calls for “patience,” endemic
to any politics that rests on the Enlightenment notion of “perfectibility,” and the
breathless urgency that prevents the subject from seeing anything beyond the oppressive
system he wants overthrown. Both thinkers find the promise of such untimeliness in their
sojourns beyond the United States.