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This paper traces the tenuous relationship of prestige television, the culture industry and blackness. The opening section aims to get a hold on what is meant by prestige television. We review literature that introduces and problematizes the intuitive arguments of prestige television’s elevated status as high art and ultimately conclude with a sociopolitical argument that minimises the distinction between form and content in order to emphasise and show the hierarchy inherent in the culture industry based on legitimacy. The second section introduces the idea of blackness to the conversation of prestige television by analysing the final scene of The Sopranos – a cut to the black screen – as not merely the event that officially inaugurates prestige television, but as an event that also announces the possible escape from its parameters of legitimacy. To do the latter we reflect upon “Black Bieber” as a figure of illegitimate blackness in Donald Glover’s Atlanta. In the third and concluding sections of the paper, we continue our elaboration of the uniqueness of blackness by putting into conversation Fred Moten’s conception of fugitive blackness with Theodor Adorno’s aesthetic theory. In the conclusion, we show how blackness challenges the totalizing aspect of the culture industry, totalizing aspect of the culture industry, pointing us towards something altogether new, after black(ness).

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  • 1 Gertz 2019: 109-110.

1In his reading of Günther Anders and Theodor W. Adorno, Nolen Gertz argues that television embraces nihilism. Television steals genuine human interaction from its viewers, making mutual recognition null and void, thus forcing complacency to a fictionalised status quo. Television, then, affirms social hierarchy as natural, not only making an escape for a better world seem impossible but also having viewers find comfort in identifying with their subordination. Gertz’s diagnosis of modern nihilism – which stems from the desire to avoid the anxiety of freedom as one realises there is ultimately no meaning to life1 – is just as applicable to the recent influx of prestige television as to the “age of television” that took place during the mid-20th century. Gertz writes:

  • 2 Ivi: 114.

Whereas traditional programming often tried to present a wholesome and idyllic dreamworld that was a better version of reality, contemporary programming often presents nightmare versions of reality meant to scare us from ever wanting to go outside again. In either version of programming what is important is the idea that screens offer an escape from reality, and reality is implicitly or explicitly presented as that from which we must escape.2

2These observations and conclusions about television – the general sense of malaise, vacuity, and isolation following from contemporary sociopolitical reality – are as insightful as they are limited. One limit is repetition, as certain sections of Gertz’s Nihilism belong to a century-long tradition of critique and commentary directed at the unsettling process of technological advancement at the expense of social progress. Another limit for Gertz may at first seem tangential or even extraneous. When framed by modernity, it is in fact a grave concern: blackness.

3This paper argues that blackness provides an alternative to the nihilism, pessimism, and the overall decadence of how modern society via art and entertainment has conspired to capture the political and ethical imagination. Blackness, we contend, may be singular in its capacity to escape the totalizing technological capture of contemporary socio-political arrangements as found in mass media; our focus in this paper is solely prestige television. Blackness is not a cathartic escape from the drudges of reality that merely drags viewers further into nihilism through the complex serial dramas of HBO and A&E; rather; it is the possibility of escape as such. Only by first describing how prestige television fails to offer a new progressive aesthetic at the intersection of art and entertainment can we then see how blackness, ever-present, always already moves in the background and foreground beyond the limits of capture.

4In the opening section we review literature from television studies that articulate some intuitive arguments for prestige television’s elevated or progressive status as high art, ultimately concluding with a sociopolitical argument suggested by Michael Z. Newman and Elana Levine that minimises form and content and emphasises the hierarchy inherent in the culture industry. The second section analyses the final scene of The Sopranos, as a cut to black(ness); as not merely the event that officially inaugurates prestige television, but as an event that also announces the possible escape from prestige television’s parameters of legitimacy. To do the latter we reflect upon “Black Bieber” as a figure of unwieldy illegitimate blackness in Donald Glover’s Atlanta. In the third section we continue our elaboration of the specificity and singularity of blackness by putting into conversation Fred Moten’s conception of fugitive blackness with Theodor Adorno’s aesthetic theory. In our conclusion we show how blackness can challenge the culture industry and point us towards something indeterminate, but altogether new.

2. Art or entertainment: prestige television, the culture industry, and legitimization

5At the beginning of the 21st century genres were introduced that allowed popular television to take on an air of newness. Of particular interest for us is how the shifting tides of this period are marked distinctly by the question of quality. There is the discourse surrounding “prestige television” that contends there was a clear increase of quality with shows like The Sopranos, The Wire, Breaking Bad, or Mad Men. Discourse surrounding budget and production value does not quite capture the specificity of “prestige television”. What exactly constitutes the ‘prestige’ that has commanded a consistent laudatory acceptance and viewership for almost 20 years now?

6Analogizing prestige television with other more generally accepted highbrow aesthetics leads the charge in framing its quality as distinct from previous and contemporaneous televisual alternatives. The intricate and patient season-long serial structure of Game of Thrones or Deadwood break from the easy digestible structures of the weekly drama. Following from this particular facet of their form, they are often described as either literary or cinematic by consumers, critics, and show runners alike. Somewhere in between the time commitments of a piece of classic literature and classic cinema, prestige television represents its own version of high art that demands contemplation, reflection, and ‘serious engagement’ at the level of its internal structure and not just its relation to the outside world. This perspective does not go unchallenged, and within television studies there is serious push back to this compulsion to analogize in the hopes of articulating or bestowing the qualitative superiority of prestige television over former television dramas or its contemporaneous reality television.

  • 3 Maciak 2017: 92-94.

7Both Jason Mittell’s Complex TV: The Poetics of Contemporary Television and Phillip Maciak’s “The Televisual Novel” push back against analogizing prestige television with other highbrow art forms. Maciak focuses primarily on analogies between prestige television and the narrative form of the novel. He notes a certain increase in the era of prestige TV to qualify quality as hinging on, and even reviving, the narrative form of the novel from its own destitution and the taboo approximation already present in “pre-modern” television’s soap operas. Maciak recognizes that the debate as to whether TV is merely a medium or has the potential for high art spans decades and is contingent as much on the technological and industrial aspects, e.g., number of channels, the serial format, “control technologies” such as the remote and VCR, as it is on the format and presentation of any one specific show. A channel like HBO – whose tagline of “It’s Not TV. It’s HBO” already preempts the qualifier prestige – takes advantage of progressive technological/industry movements that allow the development of niche shows without the regulatory and commercial constraints of network television; in doing so the particular character of the anti-hero and techniques of complex narration emerged as standard novelesque qualities representing this shift towards legitimate high art that is distinct from the general milieu of previous television programming.3 The extent to which this new genre actually characterises a qualitative leap into fine art is backgrounded by these industry trends and the ambitions by the culture industry more generally to elevate this era and format of television through an analogy that ultimately obscures the uniqueness of television in comparison to the novel.

  • 4 Mittell 2015: 2.
  • 5 Ivi: 5.
  • 6 Ivi: 18.

8Mittell’s approach in Complex TV: The Poetics of Contemporary Television begins by also acknowledging this trend of analogy as an attempt to bring both prestige and formality from already well established aesthetic traditions, but he contends “we can better understand this shift through careful analysis of television itself rather than holding onto cross-media metaphors of aspiration and legitimation.”4 He contends that there is a poetics to television – a term he somewhat ironically borrows from literary and film studies – that exhibits its own meaning-making unique to the medium. This is opposed to the former television studies approach of looking outside ‘the text’ to ask what a show means in a larger context or how it affects society.5 Mitchell does not identify prestige television by name, though he focuses on narrative complexity as the unique characteristic of television poetics where the narrative builds in each subsequent episode as opposed to the earlier dramatic and situational comedy format of returning to a stasis at the end of an episode. The three series he focuses on, The Wire, Breaking Bad, and Lost, suggests he has prestige television in mind.6

9In concert with these sentiments, Michael Z. Newman and Elana Levine in Legitimating Television also challenge the cogency of analogizing television with other well-established or more widely respected aesthetic forms. Their approach identifies the desire to analogize and place prestige television within the pantheon of high art as an attempt to establish and reify class hierarchy through legitimation. They explain:

  • 7 Newman, Levine. 2012: 2-3.

[T]he cultural legitimation of television is premised upon a rejection and a denigration of “television” as it has long existed… Cultural legitimation may seem to be an important step forward for those who value, enjoy, and feel invested in television. But it is premised on a set of hierarchies that ultimately reinforce unjust social and cultural positions.7

10In other words, the identification of prestige television and the designation of its quality cannot be reduced to its structures as Mittell and Maciak contend, even if the analogizing of its form to other aesthetic realms is problematic. The problem, in other words, is not merely an ill-advised mixing of genres and forms, but the way prestige television attempts to reify class and cultural hierarchies.

11Television is sometimes lauded as a universalizing medium whereby people of all different classes and creeds could access it by simply purchasing the set. Yet it is this very democratising characteristic that led it to be associated with the lower classes and the culture industry. Newman and Levine quite convincingly argue that the shift to comparing prestige television with the already accepted high arts function to the same ends that the rejection of television as stupefying and politically disengaging did in the past. They write:

  • 8 Ivi: 13.

Alongside the discourse of television’s rising respectability, its aestheticization and sophistication, are these reminders of all that has long kept television entertainment from being equal to other arts. Embedded within the discourse of legitimation are often such allusions to the medium’s lurking inferiority, even as we hear of the many ways in which TV may be escaping its historical constraints. Legitimation always works by selection and exclusion; TV becomes respectable through the elevation of one concept of the medium at the expense of another.8

12The supposed quality of prestige television has less to do with any inherent characteristics or characteristics identifiable in accepted forms of high art and more to do with those people who wish to distinguish their pleasure from the economically and socially marginalised. For Levine and Newman, prestige television is neither simply art nor entertainment, but a reflection of the power to determine what entertainment should be elevated to proper art.

13The framework of legitimacy used by Newman and Levine shifts our focus from the content of television programming to socio-political conditions in order to understand its quality. The cinematic and literary qualities that we often default to for qualifying certain programming as prestige television play second fiddle to the sociopolitical forces that have shifted to elevate certain programming over others. By Levine and Newman’s own logic, there is nothing barring any form and content of television programming to be elevated to a “legitimate” level, as long as a comparative distinction from the, or a, less desirable group of people is maintained.

14However, what if there was a quality that refracts through a certain sociopolitical position that fundamentally resists any legitimation? A quality, or characteristic, or merely a moment, that emerges through and alongside the genealogy of prestige television, but resists the sociopolitical ontology of Newman and Levine precisely because of its peculiar and unique disruption of the borders, or televisual frames, between aestheticization and sociopolitical positionality. In the following sections we will explore how blackness – understood as colour, absence of colour, race, and a fugitivity beyond the frame – offers its own singular ‘critique’ of prestige television through a conception of escape. We locate the inauguration of this critique at the final moment of The Sopranos, the cut to black(ness). However, the cut to black(ness) is not only an inauguration, but an invitation for the study of blackness with all its improprieties and illegitimacy.

3. The Sopranos and Atlanta after black: illegitimate blackness

15There is a television scene that inaugurates a moment of black escape amidst one of the most captivating events of the culture industry in the new millennium. In June of 2007, 11.9 million American households watched Tony, Carmela, Anthony, and eventually Meadow convene at a restaurant. Journey’s Don’t Stop Believing plays in this final sequence of the HBO series The Sopranos. As the scene develops, the viewer assumes an increasingly anxious perspective. The camera frame jumps back and forth: from the family, to other patrons sitting and entering the diner (the last of which are two black men), to Meadow parking her car, all the while two other suspicious looking men sit at the counter. Then, abruptly, the music stops and simultaneously there is a cut to black.

  • 9 C.f. Lavery, Howard, Levinson 2011.

16Much has been made of this infamous ending. The Sopranos is almost universally recognized as the progenitor of the new millennium’s adaptation of prestige TV and its final episode was expectedly met with an anticipation to match the seriousness, depth, and emotional range affiliated with both the show and soon to be established genre. A proliferation of theories and explainers emerged online as novice and professional cultural critics flocked to the proverbial water-cooler the day following the finale. Since then, theories and critics have only multiplied. The Essential Sopranos Reader dedicates its final four essays to the finale and three of them invoke affective language in their opening passages. Their language, intentionally or not, contributes to a discourse of prestige TV whereby emotional depth and contours come to signify a transcendence of the vulgarity of the culture industry. What also cannot be missed in the many critical writings on this final episode, and the final scene specifically, is how writers are not afraid to tarry in its ambiguity and openness. Further reifying their attunement to the ‘high art’ qualities of the show, Paul Levinson, Maurice Yacowar, and Douglas L. Howard all suggest that David Chase’s “non-ending” is the most proper interpretation as opposed to some conclusive position on the life or death of Tony Soprano.9

  • 10 Polan 2009: 5.
  • 11 Ivi: 8.

17At first, a good number of viewers actually found the ending confusing; wondering if there was a technical malfunction with their television or cable service. This initial befuddlement was followed by anger or disappointment. Dana Polan writes about the contradictory presumptions of viewers who, while being disappointed in not seeing Tony definitively killed because of a sort of parasocial realism attributed to the character and his immoral qualities, also simultaneously must acknowledge the fictitious nature of the character in expressing their disappointment with the writers.10 Polan insists the undecidability or ambiguity of the ending and the concluding blank screen falls in line with the influence of European art house cinema of the 60’s upon Chase and can be found throughout the series where, “The non-ending ending is, in many ways, a culmination of the series’ constant toying with viewers, challenging them by not making it easy for them but also delighting them with that very challenge”.11 In other words, average viewers will not understand this challenge, while the sophisticated will delight in it.

18Interestingly, most critics do not tarry with the intense quality of blackness that permeates and concludes this scene, despite the density they all indirectly attribute to it. For Polan the black screen solicits or initiates a generosity of metanarrative inconclusiveness. However, the agency is primarily located in David Chase, with a black screen serving as just a conduit. Thinking of blackness beyond the intentions of Chase or even the story of The Sopranos is not counter-intuitive, as the commentary above already stretches the boundaries of intentionality. The blackened blank screen had watchers question the technology they were using; it allowed the viewers to deposit their own affective and interpretive engagements with television and storytelling; even the morality of storytelling, i.e., what is expected from a creator. We would like to go beyond the critically accepted and rejected interpretations of this final scene by staring into the abyss of the black screen. Its blackness does not mark an ending, nor just any beginning; rather, it is the risky inauguration of an anoriginal interval of blackness that escapes.

19On the one hand, one can see the cut to black as the informal and unofficial introduction of prestige television – which had technically already started and would follow in its wake. On the other hand, what was inadvertently, and perhaps irresistibly, opened up with that interval of blackness can be seen to reflect an even more capacious conception of blackness, beginning with the relation of blackness to Black people. Interpretations that reduce the black screen at the end of The Sopranos to Chase’s intentionality neither exhaust interpretative schemas nor approach the generative possibilities of what such blackness truly entails.

  • 12 Fanon, 1998: 89-119.
  • 13 Keeling 2003: 103-104.

20To broach the conception of blackness we have in mind, let’s turn to Kara Keeling’s reading of Frantz Fanon and his experience in the cinema. In Chapter Five of Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon describes the preordained circularity of colonial capture and antiblack racism that he experiences as he awaits to find the violent images of the black imago portrayed on screen.12 Fanon recognizes a vicious circularity to colonial time whereby the dehumanisation of black people and their visceral response to this dehumanisation is already in the logic of coloniality, i.e., revolt gets incorporated in the dialectics of colonial oppression. For Fanon, before the movie even starts, there is an interval that anticipates the visceral rejection of antiblackness by the black viewer, but such a visceral – read “inhuman” – response only reifies the inhumanity of black people and thus makes the justification of their capture all the more salient. Keeling explains, “a crucial component of the ‘hellish cycle’ or the ‘infernal circle’ Fanon describes is the way that even the Black’s most pronounced reaction to his oppression, exploitation, and dehumanisation, his explosion, already has been accounted for within the cycles’ mechanism”.13 Colonial time captures – conceptually as much as with its technological optics – blackness in order to reject any appeal to a shared humanity.

21The relative absence of black people in The Sopranos, aside from the occasional dismissive derogatory remark or background fill-ins like those two men in the final scene, can fit into this structure described by Keeling’s reading of Fanon. In fact, the absence of black people in the series is captured by the blank screen. This is to say, even in its appearance, blackness represents absence and dismissal. To be clear, it’s not that black people were waiting for a positive representation in the concluding seconds of the show, but rather the black screen as absence showed how a redemptive in-depth characterization afforded an antihero like Tony Soprano and his family could never be incorporated into the story of America without reifying the degradation of black people, c.f. The Wire. Any in-depth representation of black people, positive, criminal, or otherwise will always be mired by absence. In her reading of Fanon, Keeling notes:

  • 14 Ivi: 101-102.

Fanon’s understanding of the role and importance of culture, and of film as a privileged cultural form for the production and circulation of the Black imago, provides one context for understanding the vehemence and persistence with which attention has been given to representations of Black people in American mass culture. For within Fanon’s thought, it is the “historicity” carried in and provided by the images in current circulation that condition the Black imago and, hence, the Black himself. But, for Fanon, a reformation of cultural images of Black (i.e., more positive images) merely makes the Black feel better about himself. It does not destroy the problem of visual representation because the violent event of colonization and enslavement that is the foundation of colonial society ensures that, as soon as they appear as such (as in they always appear as such), “the Black” and “the White” are problems.14

22Redemptive images of black people cannot escape the ‘hellish’ cycle and, therefore, the blackness at the end of The Sopranos, as opposed to the beginning of the movie as noted in Black Skin, White Masks, serves as a sort of bookend to the black imago’s representation, for there are no images imaginable that could legitimate black humanity. The humanistic dynamism and moral conflict that a figure like Tony Soprano can solicit is untranslatable to black. The black screen, an interval of anticipation and conclusion, articulates the (im)possible nature of blackness and what always awaits black people: something that is both new yet the same; conclusive and yet insatiable; an ending that is no ending at all and will leave its viewers, when they are ready, to recognize the illegitimacy of blackness.

23And yet the waiting cannot end there; blackness is too robust, too generous. As her essay continues, Keeling identifies yet another dimension to this waiting, a decolonizing explosion that is risky, that cannot be guaranteed, but that just may escape anyway. She writes,

  • 15 Keeling 2003: 107; 109-110.

In Fanon’s account, film and its reception play decisive roles in finessing, challenging, or quite (im)possibly exploding colonial reality’s cycle of anticipation and violence…Fanon senses that many of the film’s images resonate on the level of affect in ways that might exceed the film’s ideological address… More than simply ideological refusal, Fanon’s refusal to accept the film’s delimitation of his existence is also an insistence, however fleeting, on the (im)possibility of a different perception when confronted by the film’s images… In the interval, Fanon feels the utterly naked, unprotected, disarmed freedom of a limitless, open, and opening existence; one that knows no boundaries and that certainly is not locked into a infernal cycle. Liberation, if there is such a thing, is possible in the interval as a present impossibility, an expansion that explodes even the interval in which we wait.15

24In the blackness that succeeds The Sopranos, we would argue that no full liberatory violence was achieved. Fanon’s dream of ending the cycle remains, but the (im)possibility brought about in the interval leaves black watchers and watchers of blackness something to anticipate aside from dehumanisation or the empty pleasure of (mis)representation. The interval of the black screen – i.e., the revealing of a certain kind of impossibility that the ending of The Sopranos makes possible – can be expressed in another moment of blackness on our television screen, namely FX’s Atlanta.

25Atlanta approaches blackness sideways in the wake of The Sopranos’ closing/opening interval. In the new age of “prestige television”, the latter’s legitimization carved an opening for an illegitimate show like Atlanta to wait in the interval. The show follows the story of black millennials in the city of the show’s namesake attempting to survive via the success of a local rapper, Paper Boi, played by Brian Tyree Henry. Along for the ride are his friend Darius, played by Lakeith Stanfield, and the main protagonist, Earn, played by creator Donald Glover. The show is described as a comedy/drama that incorporates surrealist elements and absurdist dark humour. In excess of this description, the show does the impossible and brings newness and blackness together in a way that problematizes the hellish circularity that Fanon proposes explicitly. At stake in the show is how a certain type of blackness, an “illegitimate” blackness, can be summoned – although not represented – with both vivacity and elusiveness. Atlanta exhibits a sort of hospitable black expression; a generosity that is neither simply art nor entertainment, but the illegitimate performance of blackness’ fantastic quality in the interval.

26An instantiation of this interval takes place in the fifth episode of the first season entitled, “Nobody Beats the Biebs”. In the episode Paper Boi is participating in a celebrity basketball game with, as the title suggests, Justin Bieber. Justin Bieber in the episode is belligerent, arrogant, perhaps remorseful, but most shockingly he is black. When Bieber, played by Austin Crute, is introduced with no acknowledgment or queues given by the cast or explicitly by the cinematography of his misplaced racial complexion, the viewer is suspended in an interval. Blackness overwhelms, severing all familiar ties to memory, common sense, cultural competence, and representation. Rather than avoid the dissonance, viewers are compelled to take a risk and stay in its break of black Bieber; only with this risk does the show manage to extend the invitation of black escape. What we identified before as the absence of blackness in blackness at the end of The Sopranos, becomes, with black Bieber, a face-to-face encounter with a blackness that is clearly not black; a blackness that everyone wishes to avoid, that cannot be represented, and always escapes. The usual parameters of acknowledgment or non-acknowledgment (a form of mutual recognition viewers expect from the television set) are open to suspension so that blackness may escape capture through the impossible figure of black Bieber.

  • 16 Glover 2016.
  • 17 Glover 2016.
  • 18 Fanon 1998:119.

27In an interview with Dee Lockett of Vulture, the episode’s writer Stephen Glover provides a number of different reasons for casting Justin Bieber as black. Glover and Locket mention reasons that are familiar to the discourse on racism and television: Lockett mentions the privileges allotted to a person like Justin Bieber to redeem themselves and Glover points to the lack of privileges allotted to black actors.16 Fair enough. However, the most revealing answer about the meaning of casting Justin Bieber as black is presented in Glover’s resistance to reduce the metaphor to anything in particular, he explains, “I don’t wanna say too much about what we mean by everything that we do because, honestly, Bieber being Black has a lot of layers to it. It means a lot of different things”.17 With generosity, Glover describes this interval as a displacement of any absolute meaning, as escaping meaning, as an essentially escaping blackness. Perhaps that is also why he describes the initial revelation in the episode of Justin Bieber as black as ‘jarring’. His blackness jars semantics, if only for a moment, whereby instead of simply Fanon exploding and the hellish cycle of subordination continuing with the anticipation of the black bellhop18, the viewer feels the entire framework of possibility tremble. Glover’s explanation rhymes with but is also different from David Chase’s ‘non-ending’ because it is more of a non-beginning, although both are moments of black escape. Glover may not want to say what he means, but we do not think he could say anything conclusive about the transposition of blackness onto Bieber anyways. Saying or representing, will always be, to a certain extent, inadequate to what is felt when one notices how blackness always already escapes captivity. This does not forgo the risk of utter failure or re-establishing a pathology of racial blackness, but risk is part and parcel of attempting the (im)possible.

  • 19 Harney, S., Moten, F. 2018.

28Dee Lockett wants to suggest that placing Justin Bieber in this unorthodox black face reflects a sort of narrative about black appropriation. But black Bieber does not quite fit into the logic of appropriation because ostensibly this tripling, a black person acting as a white person who tries to “act” black, would logically lead to a sort of negation, where the black person would appear “normal”. But the behaviour and visuals of black Bieber are anything from “normal”, anything from legitimate, no matter what the cultural critics could say about legitimacy or appropriateness. Instead, on display is the fact that, as Stefano Harney and Fred Moten explain, appropriation belongs to the logic of the proper, property, and ownership, and blackness is fundamentally improper and, therefore, beyond appropriation.19 Neither Justin nor black Bieber have a legitimate claim on blackness because blackness is improper, unruly, unlawful, it is illegitimate. Black Bieber performs a blackness that simultaneously escapes appropriation in as much as it is irreducible to and unrepresentable by a black person, black body, or the colour black.

  • 20 Fanon 1998: xii.
  • 21 Moten 2008: 177.

29Blackness is not reducible to (the) black (being, person, body, colour). That is one of the lessons from what Fred Moten, after Nahum Dimitri Chandler, calls paraontological difference. In his own response to Fanon’s “zone of non-being”,20 Moten goes beyond the either-or of ontology – one has being and substance or one does not – to argue for blackness as anoriginal escape from ontological determinations. Moten’s “The Case of Blackness” begins by highlighting the difficulty yet necessity of the black radical tradition – wherein radicalism is interpreted to mean any “performance of a general [and gestural] critique of the proper” – to disentangle itself from pathologizing discourses: “The cultural and political discourse on black pathology has been so pervasive that it could be said to constitute the background against which all representations of blacks, blackness, or (the color) black take place”.21 While that is the start of Moten’s essay, what reveals itself in his analysis of the black radical tradition and paraontological difference is a reversal of the norm established by the discourses on black pathology. Abolitionist practices, fugitive movements and moments, along with the unruly and intimate illegitimacies of blackness are themselves anoriginal.

  • 22 Ivi: 179.

30Anoriginal here means something specific. In going beyond the discourse of origins, blackness escapes genealogical trappings that further sediment property, propriety, or other familiar components of racial discourse. Abolitionist practices and fugitive mo(ve)ments constitute an always already socially and historically vibrating and vibrant fugitivity that is neither present nor absent. Anoriginal here refers to that which precedes and transcends the narrative of origin. Anoriginal opposes orginality without establishing or locating a different origin. Transcending the binary of presence-absence, blackness as fugitivity is the “anoriginal impurity”22 of the interval that precedes the division of low and high art.

31Phrased differently, blackness is not a derivative, linguistic or otherwise, of (the) black. Blackness, black people, and (the colour black) are not reducible to discourses of black pathology. There is a difference in degree and kind; difference as kindness. As fugitivity, or as escape, blackness opposes accounts of substantialization that have haunted discourses of the subject, the work of art, and moral worth and which have ultimately resulted in further racialized and hierarchical oppressions. Opposing substance, escaping the either-or determinations of such discourses, parantological fugitivity performs the impossible.

4. Impossible yet necessary: unimaginable blackness

32In Aesthetic Theory, Adorno makes the following claim:

  • 23 Adorno 1997: 39-40.

To survive reality at its most extreme and grim, artworks that do not want to sell themselves as consolation must equate themselves with that reality. Radical art today is synonymous with dark art; its primary color is black. Much contemporary production is irrelevant because it takes no note of this and childishly delights in color. The ideal of blackness with regard to content is one of the deepest impulses of abstraction.23

33Radical art is in black. Radical art’s radicality relies upon the colour black, the absence of colour. By locating radical art with a specific colour instead of content or theme or motif, Adorno aims to highlight impropriety and unruliness, i.e., illegitimacy. Blackness itself becomes content, theme, and motif without being reducible to any of them. As a colour that is a non-color, blackness abstracts. It undermines reifying tendencies not for the purposes of a spurious or bad infinite abstract; rather, abstractness becomes, with blackness, concrete.

34For Adorno, art is both inextricably related to society while at the same time claiming to be distinct from that society. An authentic art, worthy of the name, must take this, its paradoxical condition, into account when presenting itself. Art that claims to be pure or radically separate from society is not different, functionally for Adorno, than art that claims to be politically committed and motivated. Both positions naively assume an ability for art to unreflectively dictate its relation to the social. While the former relies upon a false separation that instead reflects isolation, the latter assumes the position of empty power that instead confirms its weakness. Put differently, pure art that is separated from social reality leaves a bad taste in one’s mouth as it confirms that it has no interest in changing an unjust society, while art that expresses its political commitment reveals its own inability to transform the world.

35Caught in this neither-nor, art must reflect on its own paradoxical situatedness. For Adorno, blackness is how art can attend to this reality, and its own situation relative to reality. Art that turns to colour acts, for Adorno, in a childish manner. This is precisely the world of, tragic narratives, technicolor pictures, or cinematographic techniques used in contemporary prestige television shows. By juxtaposing the abstract power of blackness to the colour spectrum, Adorno manages to unravel the traditional hierarchy: blackness is not the absence or lack of light, so much as an excess, an excess escaping the limitations of colour. The colour spectrum is revealed to reproduce a false unjust reality, while blackness is the potential to be more than colour, an abstract critical gesture.

36It might appear here that Adorno conflates precisely the paraontological distinction Moten highlighted between blackness and black(s). Indeed, blackness and black seem reducible to one another and simultaneously expressive of colour and bearing a trace of pathologization. Rather than reducing blackness to black, and both to the colour black, Adorno instead registers a dissonance and movement. For Adorno, blackness becomes the movement of colour, the movement that results from colour reflecting upon its own condition of (im)possibility, the impossibility to assume a particular colour in a world that denies life. The reflection upon impossibility forces colour to itself move beyond, and in excess of colour. As abstraction, blackness is the condition of possibility for another world, for a world wherein colour can appear again. Blackness, then, is less a hue or shade or tone, than it is a movement and critical gesture, an escape from a utilitarian view of colour. As Moten will say, in a different context yet also while addressing Adorno’s aesthetics:

  • 24 Moten 2008: 208.

But perhaps only the dead can strive for the quickening power that animates what has been relegated to the pathological. Perhaps the dead are alive and escaping. Perhaps ontology is best understood as the imagination of this escape as a kind of social gathering; as undercommon plainsong and dance; as fugitive, centrifugal word; as the word’s auto-interruptive, auto-illuminative shade/s. Seen in this light, black(ness) is, in the dispossessive richness of its colors, beautiful.24

37In achieving abstractness, black art concretizes and introduces a different kind of escape and there is nothing passive in this concretization. Risking escape is the condition of all possible worlds, including the television worlds preceding and following both The Sopranos and the truly unimaginable world of Atlanta, i.e., a black world.

5. Conclusion: the Revolution will not be streamed, invitation to illegitimacy

  • 25 Horkheimer, Adorno 2002: 106.

38Prestige television presents viewers with an inherent unresolvable tension. On the one hand, prestige television is but a recent, though not new, iteration of the culture industry: “Unending sameness also governs our relationship to the past. What is new in the phase of mass culture compared to that of late liberalism is the exclusion of the new”.25 The attitude governing its relation to the past also affects our relation to possible futures. Taken in this way, prestige television is but another prologue to television, with perhaps the future anterior more appropriate: nothing will have been different from the past. It is the false difference in degree presenting itself as difference in kind.

39On the other hand, however, we find within contemporary prestige television moments left unaccounted for, unaccountable, uncounted, and thus rife with fugitive potential – as long as one is willing to embrace the risk. This fugitive potential gestures towards alternate aesthetic possibilities, ones that transcend the values commonly associated with the commodity: use and exchange. Harney and Moten, once more:

  • 26 Harney, Moten, 2013: 61

It is not credit we seek nor even debt but bad debt which is to say real debt, the debt that cannot be repaid, the debt at a distance, the debt without creditor, the black debt, the queer debt, the criminal debt. Excessive debt, incalculable debt, debt for no reason, debt broken from credit, debt as its own principle.26

40We see, in other words, a fugitivity risking escape from Nolen Gertz’s nihilistic escapism. Blackness as interval, punctuated difference, televised dissonance – all of these seemingly contingent occurrences and moments emphasise the limitations of prestige television. It is precisely in those moments that fugitivity risks escape, that failure is not avoided or eschewed but embraced as the (im)possibility of escape.

41From the black screen at the end of The Sopranos to Atlanta’s black Bieber, we find a resonant dissonance in illegitimate blackness. This resonant dissonance is neither reducible to content, nor addressed purely by form. It is a fugitive moment, an aesthetic break from the norm and from all desires for the norm, even as it risks falling right back into the norm or establishing a new one. A show like The Wire, ostensibly about blackness, seemingly could not shake its fidelity to the normative pathologizing of blackness, it could not take the risk of foregrounding a truly illegitimate and irredeemable blackness. For that we turn to Atlanta and black Bieber, in that moment, prestige television reveals its false sheen, its non-prestigious essence, its inability to represent or claim ownership for, and appropriate, blackness.

  • 27 Ivi: 49.

42The black screen accompanied by a silent soundtrack; this marks as much an end to The Sopranos as it does a beginning for a different future. This break is neither an end that offers closure, an answer to the important questions, nor one that allows any single interpretation to establish itself forcefully upon the others. Harney and Moten, again: “blackness means to render unanswerable the question of how to govern the thing that loses and finds itself to be what it is not.”27 Therefore, however much the culture industry seems all encapsulated, especially now with a prestige television that prides itself on streaming the revolution, there nonetheless remains fugitive moments that may never be appropriated, their very presence an unruly illegitimacy that holds out the possibility for alternative futures. Impossible, risky, and yet necessary, and always after, black(ness).

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Adorno, T.W. 1970, Asthetische Theorie, Eng. trans. by R. Hullot-Kentor, ed. by G. Adorno, R. Tiedermann, Aesthetic Theory, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1997.

Bianculli, D. 2011, Forward, in D. Lavery, D.L. Howard, P. Levinson (eds), The Essential Sopranos, Lexington, University Press of Kentucky: ix-xi.

Fanon, F. 1952, Peau noire, masques blanc, Eng. trans. by R. Philcox, Black Skin, White Masks, New York, Grove Press, 1998.

Gertz, N. 2019, Nihilism, Cambridge, MIT Press.

Glover, S. 2016, interview by D. Locket, Stephen Glover on Writing Atlanta’s Black Justin Bieber: ‘Are We Crazy for Doing This?’ (September), Accessed April 1, 2022, .

Harney, S., Moten, F. 2018, interview by Y.G. Alvarado, J.P. Anaya, L. Conchiero, C. Rivera Garza, A. Hernandez, Conversación Los Abajocomunes (September 5), Accessed April 1, 2022. .

Harney, S., Moten, F. 2013, The Undercommons. Fugitive Planning & Black Study, New York, Minor Compositions.

Horkheimer, M., Adorno T.W. 1947, Dialektik der Aufklärung, Eng. trans. by E. Jephcott, ed. by G. Schmid Noerr, Dialectic of Enlightenment, Stanford, Stanford University Press, 2002.

Keeling, K. 2003, “In the Interval”: Frantz Fanon and the “Problems” of Visual Representation; “Qui Parle” 13,2: 91-117.

Lavery, D., Howard, D.L., Levinson, P. (eds) 2011, The Essential Sopranos, Lexington, University Press of Kentucky.

Maciak, P. 2017, The Televisual Novel, in R. Greenwald (ed.), American Literature in Transition, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press: 88-106.

Mittell, J. 2015, Complex TV. The Poetics of Contemporary Television Storytelling, New York, New York University Press.

Moten, F. 2008, The Case of Blackness, “Criticism”, 50, 2: 117-218.

Newman, M.Z., Levine, E. 2012, Legitimating Television. Media Convergence and Cultural Status, Oxon, Routledge.

Polan, D. 2009, The Sopranos. Console-ing Passions. Spinoffs, Durham, Duke University Press.

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1 Gertz 2019: 109-110.

2 Ivi: 114.

3 Maciak 2017: 92-94.

4 Mittell 2015: 2.

5 Ivi: 5.

6 Ivi: 18.

7 Newman, Levine. 2012: 2-3.

8 Ivi: 13.

9 C.f. Lavery, Howard, Levinson 2011.

10 Polan 2009: 5.

11 Ivi: 8.

12 Fanon, 1998: 89-119.

13 Keeling 2003: 103-104.

14 Ivi: 101-102.

15 Keeling 2003: 107; 109-110.

16 Glover 2016.

17 Glover 2016.

18 Fanon 1998:119.

19 Harney, S., Moten, F. 2018.

20 Fanon 1998: xii.

21 Moten 2008: 177.

22 Ivi: 179.

23 Adorno 1997: 39-40.

24 Moten 2008: 208.

25 Horkheimer, Adorno 2002: 106.

26 Harney, Moten, 2013: 61

27 Ivi: 49.

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Per citare questo articolo

Notizia bibliografica

Osman Nemli e Mukasa Mubirumusoke, «After Black(ness)»Rivista di estetica, 83 | 2023, 105-120.

Notizia bibliografica digitale

Osman Nemli e Mukasa Mubirumusoke, «After Black(ness)»Rivista di estetica [Online], 83 | 2023, online dal 01 février 2024, consultato il 25 mai 2024. URL:; DOI:

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