Book review of Savannah Shange's Progressive Dystopia: Abolition, Antiblackness, and Schooling in San Francisco (2019)
by William F. Stafford, Jr.
Published onDec 30, 2022
Book Review: Progressive Dystopia
Progressive Dystopia: Abolition, Antiblackness, and Schooling in San Francisco, by Savannah Shange (2019). Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
In Progressive Dystopia: Abolition, Antiblackness, and Schooling in San Francisco, author Savannah Shange demonstrates the import of “abolition” as politics and principle for anthropology in her ethnography of a reflexively progressive school in San Francisco that she calls Robeson Justice Academy. Describing the school as both “strategy and site of struggle” (19; italics in original), Shange explores its everyday politics as an “exceptionally” progressive institution within the “exceptional” context of San Francisco as a progressive city, examining a style of progressive politics that pursues “wins” by asking “who loses when ‘we’ win?” (2). Reckoning with the school as strategy and site, she contextualizes the institutional, theoretical, and lived orientations toward Black life through an examination of the political and social valences of blackness in the “afterlife of slavery” (6). Within this broader milieu of Black life lived in and as afterlife, the temporality produced by this progressive space of the school emerges as “dystopic,” in that it is also a site of exceptionally intense discipline of Black comportment and expression. It is in this frame that abolitionemerges as a methodological, experiential, and affective framework that refuses further contextualization with respect to its universality as a claim. This, in turn, raises important questions concerning the generality of anthropology as a mode of study and the practices of reflexivity mobilized under its name.
Shange traces the genealogy of “abolitionist anthropology” (7) as a “genre of black study” (19; Moten and Harney 2013: 110) through its intersection with decolonial thought and political struggle. She situates the decolonial within a Black diasporic milieu that is linked corporally and imaginatively to nations whose emergent sovereignty has been, and remains, forcibly separated from their emancipatory promise. In doing so, she frames the postcolonial reality of the United States as a continuous expression of the legacies of slavery, now mediated by late liberalism. Abolitionist anthropology, then, stands within a speculative space of Black life and is constituted as an epistemological and methodological path “toward an ‘anthropology for liberation’” (7; Harrison 1991: 10), linking the theorization of antiblackness to a critical anthropology of the state. Here, ethnography emerges as an instrument and an ethic to “inhabit and rupture” the “episteme” (9; see also Sharpe 2016: 50) of slavery’s afterlives by registering the everyday “facts of blackness” (9). In this brief review, I would like to discuss an infrastructural practice through which Shange develops a relation between anthropology and ethnography in the context of abolition, which I take to be one of the text’s many powerful and elegant theoretical and technical interventions.
Progressive Dystopia begins with a photograph in which diverse students of the Robeson Justice Academy pose with their hands raised in the “don’t shoot” gesture with “our lives matter” printed above them. Shange shows how the imitation of the gesture first associated with protests against the 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown along with the call “Black Lives Matter” project a form of solidarity that figuratively displaces Black death as death by rendering it “already a fact” (3). She argues that, in dramatizing Black death as a “cautionary tale,” the photograph forces a “we” inclusive of Black lives outside the image of solidarity it projects. The “present continuous” of a utopic anti-racist solidarity is thus revealed as a dystopic racial presencing via an exclusionary inclusive “our” (3). As such, the image as ethnographic artifact maps how blackness is taken up as an infrastructure of progressive politics through its very dislocation via “the performance of racial analogy” (3). Here, the diversity of racially marked life is rendered politically meaningful through a determined effort to forestall blackness as its possible fate.
Against the enclosure of analogy, Shange figures the relation between inhabiting and disrupting the episteme of Black life in the afterlife of slavery as a rhythmic, “dyadic” relation of “syncopation”: a “two-step between the present durative tense of Black survivance and the future perfect of abolition” (10). The invocation of a dyadic rhythm displaces a temporal rendering of abolition as a discrete event, reframing an understanding of the present from which it seeks to emerge. Abolition is a reframing of the notion of the present and ethnographic presence in turn. In the invocation of syncopation, abolition projects an oscillation between the present as present and a future both traced from and disruptive of that present, insofar as the future of that present emerges only after abolition, bringing that present to a close without foreclosing it as lived experience. It is, in one possible trajectory, a rethinking of time and the ethnography of time against an anthropology of time, or a rethinking of time as a theoretical medium – following, as Shange notes, the work of Faye V. Harrison, Saidiya Hartman, Katherine McKittrick, and Christina Sharpe. In this vein, the text also intersects the work of thinkers such as Roshni Babu, Prathama Banerjee, Stephen Best, and Achille Mbembe on the theoretical politics of temporality.
In place of presence as a calibrating point of departure, Shange fixes the unity of this rhythmic frame of reference with “The One of endurance,” the One being “the bass groove that capacitates funk as form” (170 n8) or the first beat of a bar, which gathers performers and listeners into a common rhythmic flow. She cites Funkadelic’s reflexive invocation of “the One” – “getting down on the One/which we believe in” – to posit abolition anthropology as a “sociology of potentiality,” not as program but as a poetics of chronotopic calibration.
Shange sets out the stakes of this calibration for the ethnographer through framing interaction with the “public” as, like Robeson Justice Academy, site and struggle of the work of reckoning with slavery’s afterlife. Under the heading “my afterlife got afterlives” (151), she takes up the misappropriation of her critique of the school’s co-opting of racial justice movements; the example Shange cites is when an academy administrator publicly rebukes a young, Black, activist woman educator’s support of her students’ independent political activity. Citing an earlier draft of Shange’s work, the administrator suggests that the motivation of staff who develop such relationships with students is a self-indulgent “false generosity” (153). Shange brings up this instance to draw attention to the “bad faith” weaponization of ethnography (154) and the broader possibility of an ethnography that “betrays” itself and its author, speaking to the limits and risks of ethnography as a reflexive technique of political and discursive work.
Reflecting on activist anthropology specifically, she speaks to the limits of maintaining the material significance of one’s own “intent” as a broader question with implications for what it means to embrace abolition as a methodological intention. Where publics are themselves often theoretically understood as sites of reflexive interpellation, within the larger project of an abolitionist anthropology Shange holds that positioning oneself within a site as the struggle for a public is marked by iteration, ellipsis, interruption, disjunction, and pause rather than through clear rubrics of shared goals. In this light, she develops an important intervention in disrupting the methodological structures that Hoon Song associates with the white nihilism of “seeing oneself seeing oneself” (2006) as a form of intellectual and ethical self-identification in North American anthropology, as well as an imperial ethos of public visibility.
Here, Shange’s use of Christina Sharpe’s formula “in the wake” (7) to describe the unfolding of Black life in the afterlife of slavery also calls attention to Sharpe’s invocation of “blackness as... anagrammatical” (Sharpe 2016: 75). An anagram is a word whose letters are rearranged to make another word, speaking both to fields of commensuration as well as to a technique of disclosure wherein a secret is revealed through such rearrangements. Sharpe notes that where “ana-” indicates “up, in place or time, back, again, anew,” the “secret” of commensuration realized through the anagram is imparted to blackness as well. Here, the anagrammaticity of blackness is turned back on itself to posit an “anagrammatical blackness,” a form of reflexivity informed by oscillations between commensuration and disjuncture, where a “blackness in and out of place” puts “pressure on meaning and that against which meaning is made” (76; emphasis added).
Alongside her theorization of reform, discipline, and radical freedom, one might understand Shange’s engagement with the significance of abolition for anthropology as a comment on the possibilities and challenges of an anagramaticalpublic of abolition. It is an invitation to undertake technical, analytical, and political work to render a plurality of publics of abolition in the displacement of carcerality as a reified image of the social and its futures, articulating the space between the generality of a freedom lived freely and the particularities of its obstruction. As Shange notes, the book is offered as a “provocation” (10); perhaps, then, an effort asked of readers is to situate the work the book does within their own contexts without displacing the context of the book, and in doing so to experiment with an ethnographic practice of solidarity. As the book itself demonstrates, sustaining a will to solidarity constitutes its own ethical and political struggle, is an eminently technical practice, and is always open to critique.
Harrison, Faye V., ed. 1991. Decolonizing Anthropology: Moving Further Toward an Anthropology for Liberation. 2nd ed. Arlington, VA: American Anthropological Association.
Moten, Fred, and Stefano Harney. 2013. The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study. Minor Compositions.
Sharpe, Christina. 2016. In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. Duke University Press
Song, Hoon. 2006. “Seeing Oneself Seeing Oneself: White Nihilism in Ethnography and Theory.” Ethnos 71(4): 470-488.
William F. Stafford, Jr. completed his Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley with a dissertation on how autorickshaws, meters, and apps format transactions as technologies of the “public” in Delhi, India. He is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Visual Studies at the University of Toronto Mississauga and a Research Affiliate of the Ethnography Lab at the University of Toronto St. George. His current project takes up the autorickshaw meter’s panic button to explore architectures of “sequester,” “anonymity,” and “forensics” as genres of governance and sociality.
 I am indebted to Vaibhav Saria’s experiments with this concept in his recent work on caste, hijras, and the “provision” of dignity in India.
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