Zakiyyah Iman Jackson
Becoming Human: Matter and Meaning in an Antiblack World
NYU Press, 2020
320 pages

Reviewed by Michal Calo

Becoming Human: Matter and Being in an Antiblack World asks: “what might we gain from the rupture of the human?” It takes on the complex and difficult task of showcasing that this rupture is inherent to the Western philosophical and scientific vision of humanity and animality, fields that have often sought to normatively define the human and its being. The monograph’s scope is as encompassing as it sounds—examining African diasporic cultural production across three continents in relation to three centuries of philosophy and science—but its arguments are specific, incisive, and nuanced. Reinterpreting liberal humanism and its naturalized ‘Man’ as a teleological construct that both relies on and begets hierarchical modulations of race, gender, and species, the book elaborates on and intervenes in contemporary debates in the fields of African diaspora and Black studies, biopolitics, posthumanism and animal studies, new materialism, and gender and sexuality studies.

Drawing from Black feminist scholars, especially Sylvia Wynter, Hortense Spillers, and Saidiya Hartman, Zakiyyah Iman Jackson reconceptualizes the relationship between Blackness and animality, raising important and urgent questions about the limits of our understanding of humanity and the construction of race. Reading “unruly” texts of the African diaspora alongside, through, and against Enlightenment science and philosophy and their epistemological descendants, Jackson reinterprets what previous scholars have argued is humanism’s exclusionary and dehumanizing racial logics. Rather, she claims, Blackness was integral to the development of humanist thought, as the contours of the (white, male) ‘human’ were drawn in relation to an “ontologized plasticization” of Blackness: “not any one particular form of violence—animalization or objectification, for instance—but rather coerced formlessness.” Jackson’s concept of plasticity implicitly theorizes Black fungibility beyond the idiom of the enslaved subject as commodity to engage more fully notions of animality.

Thus, in her reading she suggests that, rather than plead for inclusion in, and thus recapitulate to liberal humanism’s category of the human, African diasporic cultural art frequently generates a “critical praxis of being, paradigms of relationality, and epistemology” that stymie normative conceptions of the human being. In this vein, she argues that scholarship that overemphasizes Black inclusion and humanity ultimately reify the onto-epistemologies they seek to dismantle.

The monograph’s first two chapters examine the ways that African diasporic literary texts interpose in humanist philosophy and signal toward alternative modes of being. In Chapter One, Jackson develops the notion of plasticity, tracing the ways in which Frederick Douglass’s 1845 Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass and 1873 speech “Kindness to Animals” and Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987) problematize the human-animal distinction and (try to) circumvent its ontological and epistemological fundaments. Reading Douglass, Jackson examines the “rhetorical inheritance” that shapes Douglass’s texts, and notes the enslaved or ex-slave’s problem of self-representation, whereby the grammar of slavery precedes and thus prefigures what can be said and how. Turning to Beloved,Jackson focuses on Paul D’s encounter with the rooster, Mister, and reveals how Paul D’s recognition of his own de-sexed blankness, his existence as an empty signifier, potentiates the redefinition of “his gender and being in improvisational terms rather than in fidelity to those inherited from slavery.” Through her discussion of sex and gender as co-constituted with racialized humanity, Jackson highlights Beloved’s unsettling of the animal-human binary, arguing that the novel“offers an approach to the question ‘What is man?’ that ultimately invites the dissolution of its terms.”

In Chapter Two, Jackson returns to the question of representation in her discussion of Nalo Hopkinson’s science fiction novel Brown Girl in the Ring in relation to Heideggerian and Hegelian metaphysics. Jackson examines the novel’s critique of the oft obscured relation or slippage between scientific empiricism and myth in normative conceptions of Black female maternity. By revealing and foregrounding the operation of this slippage, she traces Hopkinson’s reflexive engagement and play with the very possibility of representation. The novel, Jackson suggests, imagines new ontologies that manipulate and reshape the scientific and philosophical perception of the Black maternal figure as “a signifier that apportions and delimits Reason and the Universal,” existing “on the precipice of nothingness.”  The protagonist’s “second sight” and her “going deeper into blackness” via Yoruba mythologies potentiates a praxis of being that probes rather than rejects the vertiginous liminality between representation and reality, and imagines what Jackson calls an “emergent sensorium” of a differently modulated embodiment.

The final two chapters of Becoming Human develop a fascinating and evocative reflection on “mutation.” Chapter Three examines Octavia Butler’s “Bloodchild” (1995) and its “mutation of literary forms and idea(l)s of the body”; Chapter Four reads Audre Lorde’s Cancer Journals (1980) in conjunction with Wangechi Mutu’s artistic rendition of cyborg figures in Histology of the Different Classes of Uterine Tumors (2005) to consider what “mutational possibilities [of bodily forms] reveal about the autopoiesis of antiblackness as well as the scientific and philosophic discourses concerning species.” Together, they extend an important discussion of the biopolitics of gender, sex, and reproduction—critiquing biocentric theories that often rely on genetic deterministic and essentializing understandings of race—while suggesting new methodological linkages between embodiment, textuality, and art. In her Coda, Jackson closes her prodigious study with considerations of contemporary scientific developments in reproductive health as they come to bear on racial inequities, examining too how current work on the epigenome shapes and is shaped by onto-epistemologies of the human being.

Jackson’s methodology and critical approach dovetails with her critique against “calcified” humanist traditions. She examines “literature and art for theory … placing the theories of/as literary and visual art in conversation with more recognizable means and forms of philosophy,” and thus imbues her objects of study with their own critical praxis. Indeed, the Coda concludes with a reaffirmation of the power of art: “art holds the potential of keeping possibility open or serving as a form of redress.” If the book occasionally shortchanges the spatio-temporal specificities of its chosen artistic objects of study, it does so to place them as interlocutors within a vast tradition of philosophy and science, and Jackson provides deep, deft, and precise analyses of these conversations. This book, too, sparks urgent theoretical connections between Black and animal studies. Indeed, Jackson’s elucidation, deployment, and reconceptualization of different fields and idioms—from literature and art to cellular biology—showcases a masterful and unapologetic interdisciplinarity. This book is an essential read for any scholar invested in the historical and contemporary meanings of humanity in relation to racial constructions.