A Provocation for Change


In Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me I found a sympathetic expression for the ideological frustration I had felt towards the platform on which racial discussion takes place in America.

The fault of racial discussions does not lie in the premise from which a discussion takes place, nor are the subjects that are taken under critical examination, misguided; unfortunately, as Coates and previously, James Baldwin, in The Fire Next Time, gather, the infinite premise from which we begin a discussion of race in America reaches an eventual, finite and singular conclusion of hope and faith for progress that will take place somewhere in the near future.

For Coates, Baldwin and anyone seeking realistic racial discussion, the possibility to inspire movement and language to communicate and thereby construct change, is lost at the hands of the anticipated future

To understand the idea of the anticipated future, one must understand its inseparability from the rise of the positive pessimists’ philosophy: its influence infecting the mainstream ideas of social change. What characterizes their philosophy is the acceptance of the typically passive behavior of a pessimist without the fatalists’ anticipation for a worsening of conditions. Instead, owing to their beliefs in positive pessimism, the anticipation becomes directed towards the hope of a progressive future. However, in maintaining with their pessimism, their philosophy concludes that the change come as if it were a supernatural force acting outside of the sphere of human activity.

In this sense, the progressive future becomes inevitable and actions towards change are rendered meaningless; the only change one really has to engage in is one of attitude towards minorities, behavior that respects the lives of others, and language which adheres to the stringent regiment of political correctness. Does this not reflect the meaning of Slavoj Žižek’s idea of “revolution without a revolution”? How do we then escape the fatal and ultimate conclusion of these characteristically immobile political and social movements?

The response to this state of apathy may be countered by the passionate performance of the film Fences, which details the immense pressure exerted upon the lives of those affected by the positive pessimists’ philosophy. Strikingly, it is the stagnation of circumstances and belief of reformers in the idea of the inevitable progress, which beget the final challenge the protagonist must face in their struggle.


Fences, led by the eloquent and masterful performances of Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, invoke the subject of struggle through the discourse of an embattled father-son relationship. The film follows the son’s attempt at a true political, social and economic struggle; the forces, which act upon the young man with unrelenting force, explode onto the screen as emotional and violent outbursts against his father. However, as Žižek notes in A Pervert’s Guide to Ideology (2012), “Every violent acting out is a sign that there is something you are not able to put into words. Even the most brutal violence is the enacting of a certain symbolic deadlock.”. The father-son conflict does not simply represent the wounds of their tumultuous relationship, the totality of the son’s expression against the father encompasses a more radical attack upon the conditions to which he has become subject. The tragedy of the story is the son’s ultimate embodiment of the father in the last scene of the movie: the reproduction of his father’s behavior resonates a final return to the first conditions. His inability to escape the poor economic and social environment of his father’s life will then not only be repeated throughout the conditions of his own life, but the emotional trauma he received as a young man will likely become characteristic of his interactions with the personal relationships he creates. Societal oppression is received on two stratas: one of material misfortune, derived from the outer world, dictating the economic, social conditions the son will live through; the second dimension is one of personal corruption, entailing moral depravity, dissonance in personal relationships, and an inability to communicate the frustration caused by societal pressures. The son remains subservient to the father in this manner.

As slave masters once lashed out onto the backs of slaves to maintain a impotent sense of command and authority, the father transforms his words and fists into his very own whip. The end for both of these lives is one that is left in servitude to an unending existence, engendering a continuous, unbroken traversal through generations. Conditions are furiously replicated.

The incisive point made by Fences is that the situation is nearly hopeless. The subjection to oppressive conditions are such that a nearly inescapable grasp suffocates the possibility for another future. If we are to expect the possibility of creating progress; to alleviate the burden of the most affected, we must encounter the complete, violent sense of the issue, to indict the anticipated future is to unbare the responsibility we have to initiate a break in the continuous enslavement of the oppressed. To adopt the positive pessimist’s philosophy towards these issues is not to address the extreme and atrocious scope of oppression. To act according to their idea is to live comfortably within the paradigms of established discussion for change. To conceive the world through his eyes is to ignore those who have been delivered to the most unfortunate conditions, for their relief will come a bit further in the future, when the inevitable process of progress will commend it as such. To believe in inevitable progress is to have complete faith in the invisible fortune of progress.

The path towards change must first disavow the invisible force which commands the force of charity for humanity; it is then only through struggle that we are allowed to create change. Conditions must be understood in this vital sense; for change to occur, the situation must demand from us to not merely be motivated towards change, but forced into it.

By: Jose Ortiz-Angeles