Colin Stragar-Rice

On the cusp of losing her lover and partner, Angela Abar despondently asks John cum Dr. Manhattan cum Cal, “Where are you?” Right before Lady Trieu vaporizes the American God, Cal answers tenderly, “I’m in every moment we were together. All at once.” See—the way he experiences time is unique. In the simultaneity of his experience, causality and necessity are all bound up with one another. Everything that happens must happen. Everything that is going to happen is already taking place. In an episode prior, Angela prepares to defend Cal from being captured by the Seventh Cavalry parked outside of their home (the white supremacists have a tachyon cannon attached to a truck, which will involuntarily teleport Cal to a cage forged out of melted down lithium batteries produced in the year 1985). Cal repeats to Angela the same thing he told her the first time they met in a bar ten years prior: “We can’t stop them. There’s nothing we can do.”

Whereas the HBO miniseries Watchmen plays Dr. Manhattan for tragedy, Alan Moore’s original graphic novel writes it as cynicism. Dr. Manhattan is the most powerful being in the known universe yet he’s incapable of diverting the United States and Soviet Russia’s nuclear collision course. For that, Dr. Manhattan needs Ozymandias’ genocidal cosmic other—a gargantuan fabricated yet organic squid he dropped on New York City—to unite the Western powers. Yet, whose imaginary limitations is Moore posing here—those of human nature or of whiteness? The brilliance of the miniseries’ deconstruction of Moore’s mythos is its sheer simplicity; it renders the obvious obvious. Will Reeves (Angela Abar’s grandfather who both survives the Tulsa race massacre, which frames the series’ opening sequence and, in a deft revision to Moore’s graphic novel, is the vigilante who inspires the formation of the original minutemen) utters his final line almost as an afterthought: “[Cal] was a good man. But considering what he could do, he could have done more.”

So, why couldn’t Cal do more? What were the conditions of possibility of what Charles W. Mills might call his epistemological blindness vis a vis his white ignorance? More pointedly, were Cal’s ethico-political limitations a necessary consequence of his adherence to a metaphysics of where and when? I ask because I want to think about where I am now but, by way of a quasi-Deborah Coxian reformulation of Fredrich Nietzsche, I want to think about how I got here. That is, in the move from ‘how did you get in’ to ‘nobody’s supposed to be here’ Cox is working, in a kind of Derridean fashion, possibility with and against Dr. Manhattan’s impossibility. In his book Nietzsche and Philosophy, Deleuze stresses how he displaces the Platonic question ‘what is it?’ with the question ‘which one?’ The form of the question ‘what is (truth or beauty or justice)?’ merely obscures the fact that we’re asking ‘what is it for me?’ ‘Which one?’ allows us to see the becoming of a thing and to interrogate the relationship of force that constitutes it. With it, we can dig at its conditions of possibility.[2]

Where am I? Currently, I’m at my childhood home in New Castle, Pennsylvania. It’s a small city located along the rust belt on the Pennsylvania-Ohio border. The evacuation of our steel industry doesn’t quite register here. In Pittsburgh, they’ve memorialized their loss while McKees Rocks and Ambridge continue to reel from theirs (Memories from 2013’s Out of The Furnace helps us remember). For New Castle, it’s like the absence of an absence—something’s missing from my coffee but I can’t remember if it was supposed to be milk or cream. Perhaps our forgetting displaces a more anoriginary forgetting: That in 1913 we elected Walter Tyler as our mayor. He was the first socialist to head a civic administration in the state of Pennsylvania (and beyond that what other furtive and fugitive histories continue to operate here and now and how?). His term was short-lived as he lost reelection in 1915. In 1938, the state of Pennsylvania would commission New Castle to build a National Guard armory post (the National Guard were inimical to labor strikes in the late 19th and early 20th centuries). My father spent the first 20 years of his enlisted service stationed there. Each December my family would attend their Christmas party in the mess hall.

How did I get here? The short answer is white supremacy and the long answer is, again, white supremacy. I’m in New Castle, Pennsylvania because I left New York City, but I was in New York City because I finally returned to academia seven years after graduating from Duquesne University. I’m stupid in debt but with my teacher’s salary I was still able to save a little bit of money while living on my own. That made the move possible. That’s a blessing. That’s privilege. The last two years of my undergrad were largely paid for through my father’s GI bill, which he earned serving in the Iraq war. Now that I’m home I try to avoid talking to him about anything that matters. It always ends the same. A few months prior I ask him if he’s had a chance to listen to David Bowie’s Black Star—he hasn’t. Instead, it’s all about his thin white duke era and his flirtations with fascism. Next thing I know he’s telling me the same story he’s been telling me as a child: That Vasily Blokhin would hide behind a door with a German Walther Model 2 .25 ACP pistol and execute Soviet prisoners upon entry into the “Leninist room.” No trial, no interrogation, and no Koestleran ruminations. Just murderous efficiency.

At all hours of the day my father listens to the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. The radio blares in rooms where no one is sitting. Their words become his and his words anticipate theirs. But whose tongue is in whose mouth? One great cosmic tongue of white supremacy licking the creamy discharge at the corner of its mouth—an impression of the sound of their screeching into their Lovecraftian abyss. Over and over, I listen to how ‘there’s nothing we can do’ and that the something that is being done is worse than that nothing. In their imagination, Governor Whitmer might as well be Vasily Blokhin. From across the aisle, I’ve seen some people cope by laying this disaster squarely at Donald Trump’s feet. “This wouldn’t have happened if Hilary Clinton had won,” they say. Maybe suturing your political imaginary to a universe where there’s just fewer dead people is cut from the same metaphysical cloth that journalist Weijia Jiang identifies when she asks Trump why he conceptualizes the pandemic as a global competition. I don’t know. It’s just a thought as Beau of the Fifth Column likes to say.

In 2018’s Avengers: Infinity War, our heroes, caught in the thralls of the creeping arrival of their big and bad cosmic other Thanos, are discussing what to do about the infinity stone that’s the source of their friend Vision’s life (Thanos needs the stone to power his infinity gauntlet along with five others to end half of all life in the cosmos). “We have to destroy it,” Vision says, fully prepared to sacrifice himself. “We don’t trade lives,” Captain America responds. Sure, but Neoliberalism does. That ‘there’s nothing we can do’ reverberates from our president’s lips to our institutions of higher learning: “There’s nothing we can do about your tuition, your housing, or your employment. However, we might be able to provide some relief to some of you.” This case by case shit takes the reality of our differential relationships to power and privilege and mobilizes it to do less rather than more. I’m trying to be rigorous here—the same gobsmacking indifference that produced Allyson Green’s dance video also produces white New Yorkers gallivanting in West Village parks during the pandemic. What I mean to say is it’s that machinic assemblage that directs the police to politely offer masks to these people, as the citizens they are, for their safety. Meanwhile, up in Harlem, it’s also business as usual. The police police: “You don’t understand,” Judd Crawford says right before Will Reeves de facto hangs the Tulsa sheriff (Will is using a mesomerism device so technically Judd hangs himself), “I’m trying to fucking help you people.”[3]

I was under the impression the quarantine was a suspension of the everyday, but it turns out power doesn’t stop in the middle of a pandemic. As Neil Smith reminds us, there’s no such thing as a natural disaster. Yet, it might be deeper than that. About a month ago, Haymarket books streamed a teach-in with Marxist-Environmentalist Mike Davis. It’s the first time I’ve learned about the connection between the proliferation of novel viruses and global warming, which is umbilical to white supremacy vis a vis racial capitalism. However, the idea that the human species qua species is responsible for global ecological catastrophe is part of the same metaphysical sleight of hand that tells us ‘we’ are all in this ‘together.’ Wynter, in a conversation with Katherine McKittrick, reminds us that labeling global warming as a human activity masks that “the Western and mimetically Westernized middle classes” disproportionately produce total C02 emissions (or that the United States military emits more CO2 than most countries).[4] We’re told that doing our part is doing nothing at home although some people aren’t able to stay home and I don’t just mean essential workers. It’s more than the fact that we’re still paying rent and utilities we can’t afford. For some, staying home is violence: domestic abuse, drug addiction, mental health and so on. The idea of safety and home are troubled when the police are kicking down your door. So, (stupidass)(richass)(normalass)—the modifiers are so fluid here—white people are able to both parade through government buildings armed with guns and dance from the comfort of their living rooms.[5]

I feel like I haven’t adequately addressed how I got here. If we’re talking about graduate school then I owe a debt to my mentor Joe Razza down in DC operating out of Georgetown’s Bridge Street Books. Everything that I think I know about Black studies starts with him. He turned me onto everything—Saidiya Hartman, Fred Moten, Sylvia Wynter, and Denise Ferreira da Silva but also Jack Halberstam, Teresa de Lauretis, Craig Dworkin, Wlad Godzich and Klaus Theweleit (okay—I haven’t read each of them but I’ve taken a page from Umberto Eco and page through their books as they move from city to city, room to room, and shelf to shelf). So, it’s really obvious why I’d want to come to New York City and even more obvious why I’d want to study at NYU. Then I come to find out there’s this department called Experimental Humanities and Social Engagement and they’ll encourage me to think as errantly as I think. And so, the decision to come to graduate school becomes obvious to me.

I remember that after I finished George Jackson’s essay Fascism: Its Most Advanced Form Is Here In Amerika I had to talk with Joe. That essay brings the noise—and he knew it. I’ll never forget what he told me when I told him how much it fucked me up. “So what?” is all he said. That shit hurt. It hurt not because it was indifferent but because it was an invitation. It wounded. It cut the way it cut because it moves ineffably past all the pretensions towards revolutionary violence. It’s so impossibly soft because it feels you and it knows you feel it so all it asks is to be treated like you’ll actually make good on your promise to be good. But it knows you can’t—and that’s okay because it’s the entire point of the thing. I can’t do this on my own and I need you—and not that he needed me but that we all need each other. That touch, the caress as C. F. Bearn would say, is as much a wounding as it opens onto a wound.[6] “You can’t heal under a mask,” Will tells Angela, “wounds need air.”

I stole my copies of George Jackson’s Soledad Brother and Blood In My Eye from my mother’s library some five years ago. The shelf was stacked: Angela Davis, Huey Newton, Simone De Beauvoir, Niki Giovanni, Frantz Fanon, Zora Neale Hurston, Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, Philip S. Foner, and the list goes on (my mother earned her masters in Sociology from Penn State in 1983. Since being home, I found a copy of her thesis titled The Effect of Political Parties on Trade Union Mobilization in Chile, 1932-1970). She never taught my siblings or I this tradition (although she did sing us songs about Joe Hill and John Henry when we were little). Perhaps she didn’t need to. From 1986 to 2003, my mother worked for the Crisis Shelter of Lawrence County, New Castle, Pennsylvania. She began as a domestic violence counselor and left executive director. Since then, she’s been with the Child Advocacy Center.

Now, she tells me stories of how she was reading Bobby Seale in middle school because her older brother, my Uncle Dudley, gave her a copy of Seize the Time. And, because she read everything she could about and by the Black Panther Party, other folks in the community talked shit. Her father, my Grandpa Rice, whom I’m told was quite conservative, told all those people to mind their goddamn business and that it was her right to work things out for herself. So, when I said that both the short and long answer to how I got here is white supremacy I wasn’t being rigorous enough. It’s rather complicated. Something else has been carrying me forward as well but I couldn’t and can’t quite feel it yet. Something like what Cedric Robinson calls ‘the black radical tradition’ and something like what Luce Irigaray calls that “forgotten path” and other law that draws Antigone towards her mother.[7] Deleuze, in his essay Coldness and Cruelty, argues that we don’t escape Oedipalization so much through an alliance with the mother over the father but rather through identifying with an image of the good mother over the bad mother.[8] Although it’s more like I have to disidentify with her so she can teach me how to disidentify with myself.

2017’s Thor: Ragnarök concludes with Thor facing off against his older sister Hela the goddess of death.[9] Earlier in the film, Hela recounts the genocidal history of Asgard to her lacky Skurge. Standing in the throne room, Hela destroys the ceiling mural, an image of peace and benevolence, revealing her and her Father Odin’s bloodlust and conquest that built the Asgardian empire. As such, Hela draws her strength from Asgard and, in their final confrontation, she inevitably gains the upper hand over Thor. On the verge of defeat, Odin visits Thor in a vision and gives him an idea: “Asgard is not a place, it’s a people,” he says. What Odin hands Thor is a version of ‘there’s nothing you can do’ but this time it’s a gift. Not the abnegation of a responsibility but its highest intensity. See—the way Thor can defeat Hela is by allowing Surtur the fire giant to destroy Asgard (whom Thor imprisoned following the film’s opening sequence). In other words, Thor has to let Ragnarök happen to save his people. Here, the inevitability of apocalypse becomes a practice of freedom. Perhaps that’s the zero degree split between a Nietzschean people to come and a fascist herrenvolk—“This continual giving away of all,” as Stefano Harney and Fred Moten say.[10]

For my part, I turn around and round the question Lenin lifted from Nikolai Chernyshevsky: What is to be done? By way of Foucault, I recall that the Cynics recommend we deface the currency. Irigaray asks us “to suspend and melt down all systems of credit.”[11] On Instagram, The Nap Ministry keeps reminding me to rest. What I hear is a line from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man: “Hibernation is a covert preparation for a more overt action” but I hear it through the sound of Des’ree’s You Gotta Be. That is, it’s the way she tends to a form of tenderness and care on the way to enacting some truly terrifying shit. Or, better yet, it’s that tenderness and care that is the terrifying revolutionary shit. From a small yellowing copy of Niki Giovanni’s My House that my mother held—and that held her—when she was in high school (the spine cracks when I open it so I’m forced to handle each page with care) I fall into her poem When I Die, which closes, “And if ever i touch a life i hope that life knows that i know that touching was and still is and will always be the true revolution.”


Thank you to Holly Van Hare and Sarah Jane Weill for the opportunity to write for Caustic Frolic, to Q. Xavier for deepening my understanding of Watchmen and teaching me about tenderness, to Whitney S. Paul for conceptualizing privilege and showing me how to become other, to Spenser Rapone for being an intellectual companion and sharing with me everything I know about our home’s history, and to all my professors in my first year of graduate school—Emanuela Bianchi, Lori Cole, Jennifer Morgan, Fred Moten, Sonia Werner, and Robert Young. Your influence is immeasurable and marks every page of this essay.

[1] See Chandler, Nahum Dimitri. “Anacrusis” from X: The Problem of the Negro as a Problem for Thought. New York: Fordham University Press, Print. 2014.
[2] Deleuze, Gilles. Nietzsche and Philosophy. Translated by Hugh Tomlinson. New York: Continuum, 2002. Print. See section 2. The Form of the Question in Nietzsche from chapter 3 Critique.
[3] And, since writing this line, rebellion has cleaved this circular reasoning with such historical force that the ‘state of emergency’ that Walter Benjamin discusses in On The Concept of History now swings in the opposite direction. As always, Fanon offers us guidance: “Now, comrades, now is the time to decide to change sides. We must shake off the great mantle of night which has enveloped us, and reach for the light. The new day which is dawning must find us determined, enlightened and resolute. We must abandon our dreams and say farewell to our old beliefs and former friendships. Let us not lose time in useless laments or sickening mimicry. Let us leave this Europe which never stops talking of man yet massacres him at every one of its street corners, at every corner of the world.”
Fanon, Frantz. Wretched of the Earth. Translated by Richard Philcox. New York: Grove Press, 2004. Print. Page 235.
[4] McKittrick, Katherine and Sylvia Wynter. Unparalleled Catastrophe For Our Species? Or, to Give Humanness a Different Future: Conversations from Sylvia Wynter: On Being Human As Praxis. Edited by Katherine McKittrick. London: Duke University Press, 2015. Print. Pages 19-24.
[5] Perhaps one way to explore what Katja Diefenbach calls Spinoza’s silence on colonial slavery is in the structuration of the difference between potentia (the actual force and strength of the multitude) and potestas (the power of authority) in the wake of Wynter’s interrogation of the liberal monohumanist model of being human and its sequestering of bios and mythoi. Especially, as Spinoza’s ontology is taken to place man back within the continuum of nature.
[6] Harney, Stefano & Fred Moten. The University and the Undercommons from The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study. New York: Minor Compositions, 2013. Print. See the closing section Hapticality, Or Love from chapter 6 Fantasy in the Hold.
[7] Irigaray, Luce. Speculum of the Other Woman. Translated by Gillian C. Gill. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1989. Print. Pages 218-219.
[8] Deleuze, Gilles. Masochism. Translated by Jean McNeil and Aude Willm. Brooklyn, New York: Zone Books. Print. See chapters 8 and 9.
[9] These thoughts wouldn’t have been possible without Renegade Cut’s video essay “Thor Ragnarok – Colonialism in Asgard | Renegade Cut.”
[10] Harney, Stefano & Fred Moten. “Improvement and Preservation: Or, Usufruct and Use.” Futures of Black Radicalism. Edited by Gaye Theresa Johnson and Alex Lubin. New York: Verso, 2017. Print. Page 86.
[11] Irigaray. Page 234.