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Imagine Otherwise: Zakiyyah Iman Jackson on Black Feminist Interdisciplinarity

Imagine Otherwise: Zakiyyah Iman Jackson on Black Feminist Interdisciplinarity

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May 27, 2020
Zakiyyah Iman Jackson wearing a black shirt

What would happen if we threw out the boundaries between academic disciplines? How would our collective histories, conflicts, and corporealities change if we stopped assuming that art, science, and politics have ever been separate projects?

Today’s guest, Zakiyyah Iman Jackson, argues that the complexity of blackness and gender reveal the deep imbrications of all of these projects at the bedrock of what it means to be human.

In episode 112 of the Imagine Otherwise podcast, host Cathy Hannabach interviews feminist scholar Zakiyyah Iman Jackson about her new book and the role of blackness in defining the human both historically and in our current world, how black feminist interdisciplinarity offers tools for resisting complex social violences, and why helping art and scholarship foment minor revolutions is how Zakiyyah imagines otherwise.

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Guest: Zakiyyah Iman Jackson

Zakiyyah Iman Jackson is an assistant professor of English at the University of Southern California.

Working at the intersection of African diasporic literature and visual culture, continental philosophy, and feminist philosophies of science and biomedicine, her research explores historical and emergent links between the humanities and sciences on the question of being.  

Her new book Becoming Human: Matter and Meaning in an Antiblack World (2020) was recently published by NYU Press. It demonstrates that the history of racialized gender and maternity, specifically antiblackness, is indispensable to thought on matter, materiality, animality, and posthumanism. Becoming Human argues that African diasporic literary and visual cultural production alters the meaning and significance of being (human).

Zakiyyah’s scholarship has appeared in Feminist Studies, GLQ, Qui Parle, Catalyst, and South Atlantic Quarterly

Zakiyyah Iman Jackson wearing a black shirt. Text reads: My job is to help shift the relations of potential impossibility, as terms of legibility, instability, desire, and feeling shift under the weight of both unexpected potential and incalculable terror. Although the kind of movement I describe is characterized by the unforeseen and unpredictable, it may be registered by desire. My wager is that art and intellectual activity act as accomplices to minor revolution and catalyze change to our current mode of existence.

We chatted about

Becoming Human: Matter and Meaning in an Antiblack World (2:24)

► Black diasporic theorizing through art (4:52)

► Transdisciplinarity as research methodology (7:19)

► Racial health inequities and reproductive injustice (13:35)

► Black femininity and the relationship between race, sex, and gender (15:52)

► Imagining otherwise (21:29)

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Takeaways

Zakiyyah’s book Becoming Human

Becoming Human addresses a particular problem: the human-animal distinction that persistently reproduces the racial logic in orders of Western thought. These racial orders and logics persistently question the quality or the nature of African diasporic people’s humanity.

Transdisciplinarity as methodology

I follow my visual and literary interlocutors and let them suggest what knowledges I needed to engage….The question of being is a transdisciplinary one that asks that we remember that science, philosophy, and art were not always isolated from each other.

Analysis as collective practice

My work is primarily about blackness so that means I’m talking about listening to Black people—Black people’s fears, Black people’s suffering, and Black people’s political desires—however inconvenient and impractical. I think people feel that and I think that creates enough trust for us to collectively work through complexity.

The categorization of black womanhood

Rather than take this category for granted—Black woman—my aim is to critically engage its production and social, scientific, and philosophical history.

Imagining otherwise

My wager is that art and intellectual activity act as an accomplice to minor revolution and catalyze cataclysmic change to our current mode of existence.

More from Zakiyyah Iman Jackson

Zakiyyah’s USC faculty page

Zakiyyah’s article “Theorizing in a Void: Sublimity, Matter, and Physics in Black Feminist Poetics”

Zakiyyah’s book Becoming Human: Matter and Meaning in the Anti-Black World

Zakiyyah on Instagram

People and projects discussed

Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison’s Beloved

Nalo Hopkins

Nalo Hopkins’s Brown Girl in the Ring

Octavia Butler

Octavia Butler’s “Bloodchild”

Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

Audre Lorde

Audre Lorde’s Cancer Journals

Ezrom Legae

Ezrom Legae’s Chicken Series

Wangechi Mutu

Wangechi Mutu’s Histology of the Different Classes of Uterine Tumors

Biocentrism

Epigenetics

Sylvia Wynter

About Imagine Otherwise

Imagine Otherwise is a podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice, and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining and creating more just worlds.

Imagine Otherwise is hosted by Cathy Hannabach and produced by Ideas on Fire, an academic editing and consulting agency helping progressive, interdisciplinary scholars write and publish awesome texts, enliven public conversations, and create more just worlds.

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    Transcript

    Cathy Hannabach (00:01):

    Welcome to Imagine Otherwise, the podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining otherwise. I’m your host, Cathy Hannabach.

    Cathy Hannabach (00:23):

    What would happen if we threw out the boundaries between academic disciplines? How would our collective histories, conflicts, and corporealities change if we stopped assuming that art, science, and politics have ever been separate projects? My guest today, Zakiyyah Iman Jackson, argues that the complexity of blackness and gender reveal the deep imbrications of all of these projects at the bedrock of what it means to be human.

    Cathy Hannabach (00:49):

    Zakiyyah is an assistant professor of English at the University of Southern California, working at the intersection of African diasporic literature, visual culture, continental philosophy and feminist philosophies of science and biomedicine. Her research explores historical and emergent links between the humanities and sciences on the question of being. Her new book, Becoming Human: Matter and Meaning in an Anti-Black World, was recently published by NYU Press.

    Cathy Hannabach (01:16):

    It demonstrates that the history of racialized gender and maternity, specifically antiblackness, is indispensable to thought on matter, materiality, animality and post humanism. Becoming Human argues that African diasporic literary and visual cultural production alters the meaning and significance of being human. Zakiyyah’s scholarship has also appeared in Feminist Studies, GLQ, Qui Parle, Catalyst, and South Atlantic Quarterly.

    Cathy Hannabach (01:44):

    In our conversation, Zakiyyah and I discuss her new book and the role of blackness in defining the human both historically and in our current world, how Black feminists interdisciplinarity offers tools for resisting complex social violences and why helping art and scholarship foment minor revolutions, is how Zakiyyah imagines otherwise.

    Cathy Hannabach (02:05):

    Thanks so much for being with us today.

    Zakiyyah Iman Jackson (02:07):

    Thanks so much for inviting me. I’m really excited to talk to you.

    Cathy Hannabach (02:12):

    You’re the author of a brand new book called, Becoming Human: Matter and Meaning in an Anti-Black World. First of all, can you tell our listeners a little bit about that book and what got you excited about writing it?

    Zakiyyah Iman Jackson (02:24):

    Becoming Human addresses a particular problem: the human-animal distinction that persistently reproduces the racial logic in orders of Western thought. These racial orders and logics persistently question the quality or the nature of African diasporic people’s humanity. Scholars have often responded to this problem and this history by interpreting African diasporic literature and culture production as a reaction to this racialization—in other words, as a plea for human recognition.

    Zakiyyah Iman Jackson (03:08):

    I take a different approach in Becoming Human. I demonstrate that African American, African, and Caribbean literary and visual texts often critique and expose prevailing conceptions of the human found in Western science and philosophy. The texts in my study, I argue, move beyond a critique of visualization to generate new possibilities for rethinking ontology—in other words, our being, fleshly materiality, and the nature of what exists and what we can claim to know about existence.

    Zakiyyah Iman Jackson (03:47):

    I argue that the texts I write about generate alternative possibilities for reimagining being because the texts neither rely on animal abjection to define the human nor re-establish human recognition within liberal humanism as an antidote to racialization. Consequently, they move me toward a critique of visualization that is predicated on a desire for inclusion and a normative conception of the human, a normative activity that has given us racial hierarchy and the devaluation of blackness.

    Zakiyyah Iman Jackson (04:26):

    Some of the texts I look at include Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Nalo Hopkinson’s Brown Girl in the Ring, Audre Lorde’s Cancer Journals, Wangechi Mutu’s Histology of the Different Classes of Uterine Tumors, Octavia Butler’s “Bloodchild,” Ezrom Legae’s Chicken Series, and Frederick Douglass’s 1845 Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, and some of his speeches on kindness to animals.

    Zakiyyah Iman Jackson (04:52):

    I argue that these literary and cultural productions expand our critique of the animalization of blackness. They challenged the racialized application of the term animal to human while also questioning and revoking the fundamental presuppositions and material practices that authorize the specter of animality. So the book performs a double move of critique and displacement by identifying modes of being that do not rely on the animal’s abjection, as repudiation of the animal, that has historically been essential to producing classes of abject humans.

    Zakiyyah Iman Jackson (05:32):

    The book not only demonstrates the mutual implication of racist speciesism in Western thought, but it also reveals the extent to which logics of gendered and sexual racialization have preconditioned and prefigured modern discourses concerning the nonhuman.

    Zakiyyah Iman Jackson (05:52):

    Ultimately, Becoming Human reveals the perniciousness of foundational conceptions of the human rooted in Renaissance and Enlightenment humanism and expresses current multiculturalism alternatives. What emerges from this questioning is an unruly sense of being, knowing, and feeling existence.

    Cathy Hannabach (06:19):

    One of the things that I really love about this text and that I really loved to work on in this text is its deep commitment to interdisciplinarity as a methodological approach. It’s how you approach these texts from an interdisciplinary perspective, but you’re also showing that these fields that often get talked about as quite disparate are in fact engaged with each other.

    Cathy Hannabach (06:42):

    So you’re talking about, as you point out, evolutionary biology, epigenetics, visual art, literature, memoirs, and political speeches—all these genres that we tend to think of as distinct or separate. But you’re pointing out that historically as well as contemporarily, they’re deeply intertwined with each other, particularly around this human-animal bifurcation. What drew you to that kind of interdisciplinary approach? Did you come to these questions from interdisciplinarity as a methodology first or did you find that interdisciplinarity emerged from the texts that you were looking at?

    Zakiyyah Iman Jackson (07:19):

    I follow my visual and literary interlocutors and let them suggest what knowledges I needed to engage. So that was part of my approach. I also think the question of being is a transdisciplinary one that asks that we remember that science, philosophy, and art were not always isolated from each other. The study of them was not always isolated from each other. The rise of disciplinarity did that.

    Zakiyyah Iman Jackson (07:50):

    Disciplinarity made us think that we have to think about art and philosophy and science as separate domains. The texts that I study, the visual art that I study, really invited a reconsideration of the problem of disciplinarity. So I knew I wanted to read the texts and art in my study philosophically. I knew I wanted to read for their philosophical interventions. I wanted to read them as participating in philosophical debate.

    Zakiyyah Iman Jackson (08:33):

    I think that Black women in works of art often occupy similar positions in critical discourse: as the object of someone else’s theory, as objectified by theory, or, worse, as a muse. So I wanted to make sure that my approach engaged art and visual culture as equal participants, as interlocutors in philosophical debate.

    Cathy Hannabach (09:04):

    I think you do that really well. Rather than just apply theory to art, which is one approach, one commonly engaged approach, which is perfectly fine, you wanted to do something different. I think it’s a really fascinating book that shows how deeply philosophical art already is and particularly art from the African diaspora. It’s a hard methodology to accomplish, but I think you do it really well.

    Zakiyyah Iman Jackson (09:32):

    Thank you. I really appreciate that. I mean, one of the things that is central to how I think about methodology is that I think the African American literary tradition, one of the distinct characteristics of it is that it registers Black people’s near-exclusion in cathedrals of philosophy, education, law, science, politics, etc. by generating new literary forms that do theology, do philosophy, do political theory, do epistemology via what we may conventionally understand as novels and poetry but I think exceed our commonsense understanding of these forms.

    Cathy Hannabach (10:26):

    I know one of the things that you have and I have talked about in other contexts is teaching and how to use language in a different way to describe very complex ideas such as the ones that you’re working with in this book, for diverse audiences—both within the classroom, within different academic or scholarly communities, and beyond the academy with various audiences.

    Cathy Hannabach (10:51):

    I would love to talk with you about the ways, methods, tactics that you’ve developed to communicate both the very current importance of these kinds of histories and philosophies that you’re describing but also the very concrete, material, and experiential relevance of them in people’s daily lives. What are some tactics that you’ve developed to communicate that?

    Zakiyyah Iman Jackson (11:20):

    Yeah. I think that the way that you understand the nature and parameters of a problem suggests both solutions and how you might go about seeking solutions. The solution is in the framing of the problem. If we keep in mind that that points to what the solutions are, I think that if we can remember that in framing the problem, we’re also framing a solution. I think that that helps and I also think that the work starts with listening to people, actually listening to them.

    Zakiyyah Iman Jackson (12:03):

    My work is primarily about blackness so that means I’m talking about listening to Black people, Black people’s fears, Black people’s suffering, and Black people’s political desires, however inconvenient and impractical. I think people feel that and I think that creates enough trust for us to collectively work through complexity. That requires us to move at a more deliberate pace in order to get at, hopefully, ideally, a deeper analysis or a more resonant assessment of what needs to be done.

    Zakiyyah Iman Jackson (12:49):

    So I experience the collective project less as a set of tactics and more as a commitment and practice. And I think the difficulty is a common one. It’s how to recognize and accept that the urgent is more complex than perhaps we initially imagined. As a consequence, our thinking must be more complex. I think this is the only way to get to more resonant analysis and/or better solutions to problems. This is what I hope my work provides.

    Zakiyyah Iman Jackson (13:35):

    I think that people immediately recognize the urgency and immediacy of the topics at the center of the book: racial health inequities, reproductive injustice, ecological terror, world wrecking, and antiblackness’s persistent questioning of the nature and quality of Black people’s being. I think that the common challenge is how to accept that these problems are much more complex and require a kind of deliberative thinking. I think we often confuse alteration and change, but I think there’s good news and I think there’s devastating news and they’re wrapped up in each other.

    Zakiyyah Iman Jackson (14:37):

    The good news and the devastating news is that the order is iterative. In other words, it constantly has to reintroduce its logics or its stable replication to be possible. That’s the devastating part. But the good news is that the very nature of its iterative structure, or by the very nature of the iterative structure, there’s no guarantee that it will be able to reproduce itself in a self-identical way.

    Cathy Hannabach (15:06):

    I’m curious how these questions of alteration versus change and the complexity of urgency play out in projects that you’re working on now. I know sometimes authors hate that question when they just published a book, which is totally fine. But how are you bringing these questions into the work that you’re doing after your book?

    Zakiyyah Iman Jackson (15:34):

    Yeah, so I have begun work on another project. It stems from what I learned from writing Becoming Human and investigates questions inspired by but exceeding the frame and archive of my previous work.

    Zakiyyah Iman Jackson (15:52):

    The project advances a theory of Black femininity as a singularity—in other words, neither an identity nor subjectivity but a discursive material condition of the modern world. In this project, I aim to explore how Black feminist literary writers, visual artists, filmmakers, and philosophers have grappled with this history and its material consequences.

    Zakiyyah Iman Jackson (16:20):

    This project opts to tarry with rather than attempt to reconcile or find a dialectical solution to the perceived paradox of Black woman. Rather than take this category for granted—Black woman—my aim is to critically engage its production and social, scientific, and philosophical history. Ultimately, the project provides a critique of biocentrism or biological reductionism and clarifies the indistinction of race, sex, and gender.

    Zakiyyah Iman Jackson (17:00):

    My South Atlantic Quarterly article theorizing inner void, sublimity, matter, and physics in Black feminist poetics is the first to be published from the second project. I also recently published an essay for e-flux. Both of these recent publications consider how the matter of ungendered and gendered Black female flesh situates and troubles specific histories and claims of biological science and philosophy regarding gender and sex.

    Zakiyyah Iman Jackson (17:37):

    I’m also currently completing an essay on Sylvia Wynter’s complex thought on aesthetics. This essay deepens my engagement with chaos and complexity theory explored in my recent publications and introduces emergent thinking on exigency and duration. Speaking of duration, I hope what I said this far speaks to this issue about being deliberative.

    Zakiyyah Iman Jackson (18:06):

    The project is one that takes a category that’s assumed to be transparent and obvious and says, “Hey, we actually need to slow down here.” The project is really an attempt to do that, to do that systematic and deliberative work. And I think it points us to some unexpected conclusions about the nature of the relationship between race, sex, and gender.

    Cathy Hannabach (18:42):

    This brings me to my absolute favorite question that I get to talk with folks about, which really gets at that big why behind all of the projects that you do and draws them all together. And it gets at the heart of this podcast. It’s called Imagine Otherwise and in various ways and in really creative forms, all of the folks that I get to interview are doing just that: imagining other worlds when they create their art or publish their books or teach their classes. So, I will ask you this giant question that I think is an important one. What’s the world that you’re working toward? What kind of world do you want?

    Zakiyyah Iman Jackson (19:20):

    Yeah, yeah. I love this question. In Becoming Human, I argue that the concept of the world, and especially the world as such, is a problematic metaphysical concept as it has arisen against a backdrop of antiblack gendering and the nullification of the non-human world. So the world is one of those commonsensical things that I, in the book, try to actually raise as a topic, a presumption that needed further interrogation.

    Zakiyyah Iman Jackson (20:01):

    Specifically what I argued…well actually how I approached it is I focused on the particular problem of the definite article, the, as a signifier word, the most basic building blocks, the. I argued for disenchantment of the idea of the world, which is really an ideal of the world as a knowable concept while holding on to the notion of an incalculable and untotalizable world.

    Zakiyyah Iman Jackson (20:36):

    The world, and especially the world as such, I argue, fails as a concept, at nobility, but succeeds as an ideal of imperialist myth predicated on the central marginalization of Black feminine positionality with respect to authoritative thought. So it’s a kind of regulatory ideal.

    Zakiyyah Iman Jackson (21:01):

    This critique is not limited to any particular representation of the world but a rejection of the concept of the world. I want worlds that we currently can’t imagine but desperately need. I want worlds that presently only take the form of a gesture because they exist at the edge of legibility or exist as potential rather than possibility.

    Zakiyyah Iman Jackson (21:29):

    I think a part of my job is to help shift the relations between potential impossibility, as terms of legibility shift, instability shifts, desire shifts, and feeling shifts under the weight and in the face of both unexpected potential and incalculable terror. Although the kind of movement I describe is characterized by the unforeseen and unpredictable, it may be registered by desire. My wager is that art and intellectual activity act as an accomplice to minor revolution and catalyze cataclysmic change to our current mode of existence.

    Cathy Hannabach (22:16):

    Well, thank you so much for being with us and sharing the ways that you imagine otherwise.

    Zakiyyah Iman Jackson (22:21):

    Thank you so much for having me. It was a pleasure.

    Cathy Hannabach (22:29):

    Thanks for listening to another episode of Imagine Otherwise. Imagine Otherwise is produced by Ideas on Fire and this episode was created by Michelle Velasquez-Potts and myself, Cathy Hannabach. Audio editing was provided by the awesome folks at Pro Podcast Solutions. You can check out the show notes for this episode on our website at ideasonfire.net where you can also read about our fabulous guests and find links to the people and projects we discussed on the show.

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