Institutions of Authorship: Publishing, Gatekeeping, and Patronage in the Modern Literary Field

The Pronominal Grammar of Ontological Anti-Blackness: Institutionality and Authority in Afropessimism and The Undercommons

  • Harriet S. Hughes (University of Oxford)


Since the emergence of Afro-pessimism in the early 2000s, the focus of much critical conversation in and around the discourse has been on the viability of its ontological claims as to the non-‘Human’ status of blackness. Departing from these essential debates, this article turns rather to the generic qualities of Afro-pessimism, to suggest that the discourse’s formal choices reveal discrepancies in the ontological theses being argued. In comparing two of the discourse’s key texts, Frank Wilderson’s memoir, Afropessimism (2021) and Stefano Harney and Fred Moten’s The Undercommons (2013), I illustrate how Wilderson’s memoir performs the thesis of ontological anti-blackness through the failures of its first-person singular narration; failures expressive of the impossibility of the black ‘object’ claiming access to the memoir’s generic institutions of authorship and authority. By contrast, reading Harney and Moten’s critique of the university through the genre of the manifesto shows their depersonalized first-person plural to adopt an appositional and ‘fugitive’ relation to the totalizing political authority entailed in the genre. Whereas the failures of Wilderson’s text enact, then, a kind of refusal to participate in the institutions of authority enshrined in memoir’s first-person singular, Harney and Moten’s utopian ‘we’ ‘refuse[s] to refuse’. Their ‘undercommons’ critique addresses, at once, the Enlightenment-born institution of the university, and related institutions of genre, representation, and, ultimately, subjectification. Through their appositional orientation to the manifesto, Moten and Harney propose an Afro-pessimist thesis formally and substantively different to Wilderson’s—one arguably less predicated on failure.

How to Cite:

Hughes, H. S., (2023) “The Pronominal Grammar of Ontological Anti-Blackness: Institutionality and Authority in Afropessimism and The Undercommons”, Authorship 11(1): 6. doi:

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Published on
31 Jan 2023
Peer Reviewed