Orphan/Black Absence


Since I am studying for a rite of passage that nobody wants to know anything about except myself and my dear colleagues, things can get a bit oppressive and alienating sometimes. So it was that I took a break from cramming Latin American literature from the late 19th century and went back briefly to passages I had read a couple of years ago from two of Badiou’s books. His meditations on philosophy and poetry helped me put things back into perspective.

I should acknowledge, seeing as I would like to share these thoughts, that not being a mathematician or anything close to a student of philosophy, I cannot come at Badiou’s ideas with the abilities to converse with them on his terms. But I do approach his ideas from my entry into literary criticism, which is where I find myself now and also where I would recommend that things might make the most sense—or at least where we can make use of some of these ideas without despairing completely at the situation in which we experience the world right now, collectively I mean.

Now, wait—the reason why I started thinking about Badiou is because in reading him I took another break and watched the last episode of the marvelous Canadian series, Orphan Black. I have been having trouble with the series in terms of its portrayals of race, particularly of Black and Asian characters, from the very beginning. But since the writers and filmmakers have been such open and generous folks with their fans over the years, and given the great work they do on gender issues, queer sexualities and feminist issues worldwide, I feel inclined to cut them some slack.

My response hit a high at the point when Helena reveals the name of her memoir, Orphan Black, and Alison exclaims “But we’re not Black!?” This is the character of Alison speaking without any filter and viewers need to appreciate this in order not to be puzzled and disturbed by the comment. Tatiana Maslany is brilliant in all her characterizations of the sestras, and no less when it comes to Alison’s worldview as the suburban soccer-mom that she is. But I think the writers needed more than a micro-reaction from the other sestras that acknowledges the metanarrative of the series, as a piece of indie-videomaking, that is deeply connected with the subjective-worldreading of the series in its imaginary narrative setting.

In that narrative setting, Alison and her Donnie are white Canadians who have adopted two Black children, Gemma and Oscar. Art, the only Black cop who has been both hero and friend comes to the final party with his daughter Maya and child-clone Charlotte, yet the Black children are hardly seen. Without a reaction in the text that connects our reading of it with its imaginary fabric, let us say, suddenly there is a painful tearing of that fabric and the narrative is thrown off course. We can read this story as that of a community somewhere in Toronto where extremely complex and riveting characters have enthralled us for five years. Their story has something to say about the entire world, and no, their gender, color or sexuality doesn’t matter—but when these tears happen to the fabric of that story, then it does matter. We are saddened, we grieve for the absences of our infinitesimal subjective realities.

Orphan Black made sense to me because we are all orphans in our age, because our reality, our consciousness is, as Badiou writes, a void of “inconsistent multiplicity” and, in my understanding, we are not able most of the time to have but brief glimpses of what might unite our experience. There was a time, he writes, when the study of philosophy was “sutured” onto art, onto poetry, and this was perhaps the best that human history could experience in its relation to philosophy. But philosophy is not art (philosophy can become “sutured” onto art, science, politics, and love); and anyway the age of the poet for Badiou has passed. I am not so sure. In those brief instances when we glimpse a connection it is art, whether new or faded, passé, retrograde and fallible, that unites us and wakens us again.

The title and the spirit of Orphan Black made sense to be because beyond living an orphaned existence, a black void could also be a black expanse, and an expanse could signify some measure of hope, however battered. Blackness to me has always been fertile in the imagination, deep, infinite, female, quiet, eternal. And Black in the modern context has also been about so much injustice, valor, and unfinished struggle that even for an indie series that we watch for entertainment, the word Black in the title seemed right, seemed in tune with the modern human condition.

And it seemed to make sense in terms of literature, which is what I study, poetry, a possibility for poetry to provide journeys to the study, the love of, knowledge, of truth: philosophy.

The moment has passed, and I’m ready to go back to studying, but turning around I looked up behind me and saw an old poster on my wall, one I often read aloud to myself and marvel at its gift. I read it again today, the words of another scholar and poet, one who encouraged study, reflection, and strong voices to speak out. Thank you, Sister:


Love is a word, another kind of open.

As the diamond comes

into a knot of flame

I am Black

because I come from the earth’s inside

take my world for jewel

in the open light.

Audre Lorde, 1934-1992


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