STACI BU SHEA
The Affirmative Potential of Missing Out
In 1961, while at Brandeis University in Paris, Angela Davis pursued dialogue with Herbert Marcuse to help her draw up a bibliography on basic works in philosophy. These interactions soon matured into weekly discussions on the philosophers that Marcuse suggested, providing Davis a vivid picture and discourse of the history of philosophy as well as a footing unachievable in a bare introductory course. In her final year, Davis took part in the seminar that Marcuse led on Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. Years later, she describes a moment of inspiration from this course in her autobiography: “pouring over a seemingly incomprehensible passage for hours, then suddenly grasping its meaning gave me a sense of satisfaction I had never experienced before.”(i)
Then, in 1965, Davis was invited by Marcuse to study in Frankfurt where Theodor Adorno was teaching. She accepted, as she wished to be closer to her interests in Kant, Hegel and Marx. Meanwhile in her home country, across the globe, riots began to break out in Watts, a largely black neighborhood of Los Angeles, California. Davis was allured by Post World War II Socialist Germany, and would often visit Berlin with other students. While tourists endured the long wait to see the other side of the “wall,” Davis was signaled to pass after presenting her passport. “This was their way of showing their solidarity with black people,” she recalled. (ii) She passed through Checkpoint Charlie with ease.
Davis and other students, many of them members of the German Socialist Student League, participated in rallies and demonstrations in Berlin. Back in the US, the neighborhood of Watts was burning, and a new black militancy began to rise from its ashes. The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense was made up of young black men ready to bare arms in order to protect the black community from the indiscriminate police brutality terrorizing Oakland, California.
In Berlin, she was deepening her understanding of philosophy, yet succumbing to isolation as the violence progressed in the states. She later described the terrain of fight being so far away that she could not analyze the features of the struggle. Davis’s physical distance repressed her from feeling “a part of the collective coming to consciousness of [her] people,” and made it increasingly difficult to “judge which currents of the movement were progressive and genuine and which were not.” (iii)
Davis was supposed to work directly with Adorno on her doctoral dissertation, but felt compelled to go back to the states. More accurately, she was calling herself back. Davis could not continue her academic work without being politically involved in demanding justice for her sisters and brothers, her family. This orientation created the politics for how and for whom she cares. Proximity reinforced it.
Now, in retrospection, Davis’s actions, which were pre fomo (fear of missing out), illustrated the potential of missing one event for another. There is fear in not being able to capture a movement with every part of your being, to be separate from a particular object of feeling and identification. The struggle is the life-nerve, and this bios/zoe is the vitality that sustains the struggle. This is the heart wrenching and breaking joy as an emotional object that shaped Davis.
In Whatever gets you through the day, a section of the book “Transpositions,” Rosi Braidotti articulates a non-unitary or nomadic conception of subjectivity, and sustainability as an ethics and culture of affirmation over negation. She suggests that “the joyful expression of becoming is a way of writing the prehistory of possible futures, that is to say to take care of the unfolding of possible worlds.” (iv) In Davis’s decision to transplant her force back to the states, she took care in the responsibility for the union of theory and action, community service and militancy, in coordination with the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. She might have feared both missing out on her participation in the struggle and working with Adorno, a leading member of the Frankfurt School of critical theory. The interdependence of the two is articulated in the way that fear provides the joy that she “missed out” on working with Adorno, and the joy overrides it. It is a transformation of a negative passion into positive one. The fear of missing out on a struggle, the joy of missing out on the bourgeoisie, this is a kind of revolution in itself.
“Is ‘revolution’ to learn to sense and perceive with every organ?” Lisa Robertson annotates “The Lesbian Poet” by Eileen Myles. (v) Myles previously explains that “in a culture wild about dick, it’s essential… to do some kind of owning, of what’s inside your belly, the invisible.” (vi) The recognized agency to create and take choices is a reverberating element of what constitutes being free, that actions can be made with you and your uterus and your fallopian tubes. This is the measurement of our willfulness.
Gertrude Stein is a mother to Eileen Myles. Myles unwrites herself like Stein’s continuous present. It’s a way of shedding her certainty and her growth. Unwriting returns us to the fullness of the body in its general, living state, and after death we have from it textual residue, like a poem or autobiography for example. Davis unwrites herself, too. These mothers provide tools and thoughts to help those who are not only trying to sustain themselves in the struggle, but to have joy in missing out on everything but. Activists Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, Miss Major, and LTTR, the feminist genderqueer artist collective, are mothers to many of us. Davis’s mother is Sallye Davis: she was a socialist, activist, and educator. Davis gave her mother all of the diplomas and awards she received to incorporate into the shrine of pride that only a mother would make for her daughter.
Between domestic and international affairs, Davis was caught in a proverbial crack, one that appears not as a binary between life and death, but as the general run of activities and the small yet powerfully resonating interventions faced in daily life. The question comes down to how to go on living and at what intensity, capacity, and what kind of qualitative cost might be conceptualized in order to do so. Davis knew that because philosophy and action could not be separated, the joy of missing out due to intentionally collapsed fear would be the result of their mutual dependence. We miss out in order to be somewhere more meaningful. We miss out in order to contribute. Solidarity and engaged collectivity with the struggle vis a vis critical thought were mutual props for how Davis could sustain herself, and proves an example of how we are able to endure sustainability. She would agree with Braidotti’s proposition “to hold everyone, not only noticeable people like writers or thinkers, but just anyone accountable for the ethical effort to be worthy of the production of affect and precept. It is a noble ethics of overcoming the self and stretching the boundaries of how much a body can take; it also involves compassion for pain, but also an active desire to work through it and find a way across it.” (vii)
i. Davis, Angela Y. Angela Davis: An Autobiography. New York: Random House, 1974. p. 136.
ii. ibid. p. 140.
iii. ibid. p. 145.
iv. Braidotti, Rosi. “Transcendence: Transposing Death.” In Transpositions: On Nomadic Ethics.
Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2006. p. 209.
v. Robertson, Lisa, and Matthew Stadler, eds. Revolution: A Reader. Paraguay Press & Publication
Studio, 2012. p. 437.
vii. Braidotti, Rosi. “Transcendence: Transposing Death.” In Transpositions: On Nomadic Ethics.
Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2006. p. 228.