For Ellison, love was a mysterious force, the potential of which he could not quite grasp, but which he imagined could be something with and in excess of individual love: as a radical politics. After the death of Clifton, the invisible man wonders, “could politics ever be an expression of love?” (452). But even to the novel’s end, he remains incapable of harnessing such a force, and he is thrown into a kind of reactive violence. The prologue of the novel contains, with the exception of the pre-epilogue fantasy, some of the strongest accounts of the invisible man’s anger and violence: invisible, he is finally free to be improper and experience anger about his particular structural position and the ideologies that, under the guise of liberation, have consistently reinscribed his oppression. However, Sara Ahmed, drawing on Audre Lorde’s account of the Combahee River Collective and Lorde’s feelings of anger about racism, offers a different way of comprehending the invisible man’s anger. Rather than understanding anger as a reactionary force of negation, Ahmed writes:
“Here, [for Lorde] anger is constructed in different ways: as a response to the injustice of racism; as a vision of the future; as a translation of pain into knowledge; as being ‘loaded with information and energy’. Crucially, anger is not simply defined in relation to a past but as opening up the future. In other words, being against something does not end with ‘what one is against’ (it does not become ‘stuck’ on the object of either the emotion or the critique, though that object remains sticky and compelling). Being against something is also being for something that has yet to be articulated or is not yet.” (Ahmed 248)
The invisible man’s retreat to the hole and his unchecked rage in the prologue have long been read as the abandonment of political possibility, but by taking Ahmed’s and Lorde’s revision of anger we are given a way to understand the inventive possibility and political engagement that the invisible man experiences: to be against a history of racist science and its material effects is also to maintain a relationship to political futurity. The invisible man’s anger and rage can then be understood as “being for something that has yet to be articulated or is not yet.”
Anger that is also a becoming “for” the not yet disorganizes the relationship, both conceptually and practically, between what is and what can be. In the final lines of the novel, the strange and dream-like perceptions that pervade the invisible man’s experience of the hole produce the possibility of a new and different plan for living, a plan for living that can only be accessed by abandoning the historical narrative of modernization and progress, and returning to the conceptual and ontological priority of a chaos on which to build new forms of organization. He concludes the epilogue, stating:
“The mind that has conceived a plan of living must never lose sight of the chaos against which that pattern was conceived. That goes for societies as well as for individuals. Thus, having tried to give pattern to the chaos which lives within the pattern of your certainties, I must come out. I must emerge.” (Ellison 580)
This complicated formulation acknowledges that within the patterns of certainty—perhaps especially the certainty of scientific knowledge—there resides chaos, irrationality. The narrator’s goal is to make a new pattern, a life, on and with such chaos. His attempt to pattern chaos results in an emergence filled with the political charge of a plan for living that is not so much a new ideology, a new governing epistemology, as it is a plan to live itself, a plan to construct new forms of organization that are yet to be known, but that can respond to the irruptive material conditions that have conditioned him.
In the final line the narrator begins to imagine producing a community of his own. Responding to a question that has animated the final searching of the novel—“Can politics ever be an expression of love?”—he says finally, “Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?” Here, rather than reading “speaking for” as a standing in place of, or speaking on behalf of, the seeking and yearning of the narrator, his hope for a “plan for living” that will lead him out of the hole, seems not to indicate an authoritative “speaking for” so much as a speaking to, speaking for as a gift to be received and reciprocated, to be spoken back to. And it is this transmission, on the lower frequencies, that finds the novel engaged with and animating a strain of black radical thought that extends the line of materio-philisophical thought-action, of thinking-tinkering, into particular activist struggles—struggles that mirror and extend the invisible man’s own struggles and potentials developed in “the hole.” Beyond not merely physical space-time separation, but also juridically imposed space-time separation, Ellison and his narrator make possible an unacknowledged community with Jackson.
The desire to make a radical and resistant community, a community that could plan to live against imposed and systematic plans for life, was central to Jackson’s own writing. Unlike Ellison, however, who in writing Invisible Man was limited by his attempts to master what it would mean to be a proper novelist, Jackson struggled against prison conditions that limited his capacity to write at all. Ellison felt that one had to narrow experience and produce coherence out of chaos; Jackson, by contrast, had to produce excess that could communicate above and beyond his writing. As the editor of Soledad Brother comments in a footnote: “All of Jackson’s correspondence had to pass through the rigors of prison censorship. Much of it was completely destroyed or mutilated. Only his last letters to his lawyer passed through uncensored” (Jackson 57). In addition to the restraints imposed on his communication with the world outside the prison, his access to books was limited to particular sizes and editions approved by the prison, which he relied on those outside to send him and which were often difficult to get.
Jackson was intensely aware, and often angry—angry in ways that pulsed with a desire for the not yet—that his access to knowledge about the world was hampered by both the prison system that contained him and a failed and misguided educational system that preceded it. He recognized that the dominant epistemologies that governed the systems constraining him were constituted through the elision of black life and black thought; their absence was its condition of possibility. But he also understood that full knowledge, in or out of the prison, was impossible—the world would always exceed any attempts at total rationalization. Any given ontology, founded on the possibility of epistemologically totalizing being in the world, would be, in Moten’s phrasing, “inadequate to blackness” (Moten “Case” 187). Jackson therefore has to invent a relationship to the world beyond ontology itself, a relationship that improvises its own relations on the fly, in ways that affirm and make use of the excesses that emerge most significantly in the prison’s attempts to suppress them.
Jackson’s attempts to produce a community of being through his correspondence had to operate at levels quite different from that of information transfer or signification. He often feared, rightly, that his letters had not gotten through. He therefore expressed things indirectly, punctuating his letters with “you dig?” Given the necessary opacity of his letters, the phrase seems to indicate something more than a colloquial query about understanding; it indicates a materiality that had to be dug into beyond what he could write “directly” (Jackson 57). For him, the ways in which his letters were cut out and censored is another means of enforcing divisions that hamper the political potentials of love. He writes:
“It is terrible that we have all been so divided. The social order is set up so as to encourage this. The powers that be don’t want any loyal loving groups forming up. So they discourage it in subtle ways. And as it is said, when poverty comes in the door, love leaves by the window!” (Jackson 151)
The barricades produced by poverty, while seemingly metaphorical, are as real for Jackson as the prison walls; division is a real social and ontological effect of an always material epistemology. For Jackson, the prison operates as a means of guaranteeing a national community of proper citizen-subjects through the eradication of that which is irrational to and in excess of it. More forcefully, it is a means to eradicate alternative social formations, any actually existing loving groups that might form out of shared interest and need, groups whose composition was another name for black life. The prison is but a last, stopgap measure for enforcing the divisions already formed by economic inequality, racialization, and (as he comes to realize in his final letters to Angela Davis) hierarchical gendering.
But Jackson understood love as a force that, despite being under attack, was not only necessary but also resilient, immanently produced in the autonomous formation of shared communities—whether they be communities of any two people with similar struggles or communities of global millions across the third world. So, though he would speak of love under attack, it would also be in speaking of love, and the possibilities of love—love that needs to be dug into—that he could articulate his own improvisational politics that did not depend on a given ontology or originate with systematic organization (though it might try to organize). In fact, we might say that he articulates a science that abandons ontology all together, making a space for what Moten earlier called “the possibility and project of a utopian politics outside ontology” (Moten Break 197). Although Einstein and Ellison both sought an epistemology that might be open to the invisible and irrational that traverses the systematization of objects, systemized and given coherence out of chaos, Jackson’s concept of political reality evinces an understanding of materiality that is itself always in formation and deformation; in which systematicity itself cannot even be thought as given.
Indeed, even as his writing attends to the contributions of systemic critiques of US governance and capitalism that inform his thought—especially those provided by Marxism—he rejects historical determinism in favor of undetermined production on ever-changing and unanticipatable grounds. He writes:
“My life is so disrupted, so precarious, my inclinations so oriented to struggle that anyone who would love me would have to be bold indeed—or out of their head. But if you’re saying what I think you are saying, I like it. (If I have flattered myself please try to understand.) I like the way you say it also; over the next few months we’ll discuss the related problems. By the time I’ve solved these minor ones that temporarily limit my movements, we’ll have also settled whether or not it is selfish for us to seek gratification by reaching and touching and holding, does the building of a bed precede the love act itself? Or can we ‘do it in the road’ until the people’s army has satisfied our territory problem? That is important to me, whether or not you are willing to ‘do it in the road.’ You dig…” (Jackson 272)
For Jackson, the prison is a “minor” problem that “temporarily limit[s]” his movement. The prison is not a fully planned system at all, but an ad hoc response to the constant emergence of life; the prison’s capacities are temporary in that it is simply trying to plug the holes of a leaking, constantly constructing system.
The difference between an epistemology that would see society and the world as “systems” or as something else marks a difference that also concerned Deleuze, which he articulated by posing his understanding in apposition to Foucault’s:
“Michel [Foucault] was always amazed by the fact that despite all their underhandedness and their hypocrisy, we can still manage to resist. On the contrary, I am amazed by the fact that everything is leaking, and the government manages to plug the leaks. In a sense, Michel and I addressed the same problem from opposite ends… . For me society is a fluid—or even worse, a gas. For Michel it was an architecture.” (Deleuze, “Intellectual” 21).
Jackson’s vision of the prison as an ad hoc construction of barricades resonates with Deleuze’s description of plugging leaks. This is precisely what would be revealed if science turned its inquiry to the system itself as Jackson demanded: it is not a system but a reaction to irrationality, a delirium, desperately trying to prevent the formation of a society rather than maintain the social order.
Jackson’s interest then is in not only the possibility for but also the necessity of action—the act of love—that would precede the establishment of “proper” conditions for it. To “do it in the road” would be to act in the improper place: in the “road” that has been constructed for traffic and transport, not for “love.” But more to the point, it eradicates any sense of propriety by suggesting that the act of love will produce the territory. The act composes materiality. In a mix of literary, scientific, and political writing, Jackson develops a mode of composition that evinces the ways in which literature, science, and politics all operate to compose chaos through forces, at least one of which is love, forming and deforming against the supposed imaginary of a system, total or not. The understanding of politics he evinces here is one that both affirms a larger and directed struggle against what consistently appears as a system; but more forcefully, it also operates and acts on the materiality that is prior to such a struggle. Action that waits for the proper time to confront a systemic totality is a false hope, and could likely never be enacted at all.
Immediately following that passage in the letter, Jackson continues, emphasizing the excessive historical and physical capacities of the force of love: the capacity of love to disrupt historical and physical determinations and the very concept of ontological determination. He writes:
“I’ll love you till the wings fly off at least, perhaps beyond. My love could burn you, however, it runs hot and I have nearly half a millennium stored up. Mine is a perfect love, soft to the touch but so hot, hard, and dense at its center that its weight will soon offset this planet.” (272)
Here, love becomes a dense physical force, a way of describing a productive desire and its potential to offset the planet. It has a capacity—an unsettling and unruly reality— that can disrupt ontology itself with physical and political consequences that exceed even Ellison’s greatest hopes for it.
Love names the excessive force of composition beyond both epistemology and ontology, which has been carrying, above and beyond his letters, the connective tissue the prison sought to sever. That is, for Jackson, love names the very force generated and made invisible in that anoriginal entanglement, the force that continues, impossibly, to connect those who have been dispersed and divided in the scattering of the black diaspora as they continue to constitute themselves, constantly forming and reforming. And it is this love—this violent, caring, connecting force—that makes his letters something far in excess of—more politically powerful, aesthetically inventive, and scientifically vital—than information transmission that we might call knowledge or meaning (transmission that would be governed by the physical and juridical limits of space-time separation). Through the excessive materiality of his letters and of writing itself, Jackson produces the community he has imagined, the community otherwise denied to him by the epistemology that founds the prison as a necessary and dividing force and instantiates its divisions as ontological reality. For Jackson, thought itself becomes a physical experiment. And, in the midst of physically- and juridically-imposed space-time separation from Einstein and Ellison, he forges a seemingly impossible connection with them, too, by actualizing the real possibilities of the dissolution of ontology immanent to the open ontology they sought to make.