an oversimplification of words

i
Roy Grimes disagrees with his mother and their disagreement is within the tradition of what might be called black disbelief. Black disbelief, it seems, is a refusal of the conditions of one’s life worlds while simultaneously enunciating the possibility for something new, something otherwise. Roy Grimes, in Go Tell it On the Mountain by James Baldwin, laments to his mother Elizabeth, saying that the actions of his father Gabriel do not meet up with the rhetoric of holiness and righteousness, that the violence and violation Roy receives is not consistent with the ideology and religiousness of a love ethic that is pronounced verbally. Within this gap – of which the London Underground Tube system tells us to “mind” – is the radical force of love, its capacity to produce otherwise worlds that are not grounded in such violence and violation. Roy’s is an ethical charge against the normative modes of his existence: he disbelieves that violence is concomitant with love, he disbelieves that physical, emotional and spiritual abuse is a mode of protection. He does not want to be a citizen of the household of faith, nor of Gabriel Grimes’s domestic space, because with such citizenship comes the relinquishment of liberatory praxis, of living vibrantly and abundantly. With such citizenship comes duty and obligation but certainly nothing like joy or peace. Roy, it seems, recognized this all. Roy’s frustration and demand, his disbelief, emerged from his acute perception attuned to the ways that he is victim of inequitable distributions of power. But his being victim was not a totalizing force, so much so that he spoke back, forcefully, truth to power.

Nina Simone corroborates Roy’s charge. At the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1976, Nina Simone produced a rendition of the song “Feelings” by Louis Gasté and Morris Albert.

What strikes me each time I listen is her interrupting the song almost at its very beginning to say, “What a shame to have to write a song like that,” of which she quickly followed with, “I’m not making fun of the man. I do not believe the conditions that produced a situation that demanded a song like that!” She looked on, after having offered such commentary, to the incredulity of the audience. They could not comprehend her disbelief in the very situation from which a song emerges. Their refusal of comprehension was an articulation of the privilege that disallowed engagement, incarnation, fleshliness in our world. Their refusal was a mode of rapture, leaving behind those who disbelieve as a material spiritual practice.

Roy Grimes is our guiding post. His desire and demand for love is an ethical injunction against not only the conditions of his world but ours as well. He did not speak merely of a mode of affection that is ephemeral in its enactment. He spoke of a love that charges his parents to live into the world differently, to ethically engage their children through reciprocity and concern, through the obliteration of hierarchies that are grounded in unjust power differentials. He desired a love, in other words, that fundamentally would alter the alienation produced through violence, he desired a love, in other words, that would, in sociality, flower. Simone pinpointed the very thing Roy lamented, she elucidated a black disbelief: that there are situations that produce demands on and for us to speak, demands that have ethical force and thrust. We live in such situations, such moments of crises.

And so we listen and incline our ear towards Roy’s lament, towards Roy’s critique of violence and violation. We sit still with Roy, hearkening to his disbelief, making it our own.

ii
We live in a world of namings and misnamings: arguments over if someone is or isn’t a “public intellectual” (Melissa Harris-Perry, for example); if someone is “dumb” and “stupid” (Porsha Williams of Real Housewives of Atlanta fame, for example); what “affordable” in terms of housing means; “urban renewal” in terms of gentrification; “choice” and “charter” in terms of privatizing and defunding equitable educational schooling opportunities for young folks. What these modes of naming do is provide a monolingual reduction of words, they oversimplify the complexity of life experiences. There is an assumption that the words have within themselves crystalized and concretized meaning, that they have self-evident capacities to name realities. But what seems apparent in our pernicious times is how these words often disallow rigorous analysis in the service of ease and comfort with our political ideologies. Let’s consider Barack Obama as a primary figuration of such misnaming.

Barack Obama – so the various opinions claim – is “smart” particularly over and against the “dumbness” of his predecessor George W. Bush. His being “intellectual,” his reading books and newspapers and his being a “constitutional scholar,” are all facts mobilized to underscore just how smart he is. Yet, these words merely oversimplify the pervasiveness of violence that has proliferated under his administration. Smartness, intelligence and intellectuality are instrumentalized to shield from a fundamental truth: Obama’s tenure as the leader of this supposedly free world has been more radically violent, economically inequitable, more secretive and surveilling than anything the “dumb” Bush could have imagined. Misnaming produces the conditions whereby we can avert gazes from the violence produced and, instead, celebrate symbolism. When the words are mobilized to veil from the fact that the actions they obscure enunciate quotidian violence, the urgency of minding the gap, of Roy’s ethical injunction, intensifies. It’s all about the words used and how they cohere with or against actions.

The crisis occurring in American urban cities – through privatization of schooling, gentrification, displacement of communities, joblessness and chronic unemployment – is called urban renewal. What sounds like a solution ends up being a perpetuation of the cycles of inequities, a proliferation of systemic and institutional violence. Barack Obama has, for example, recently named five “Promise Zones“: “the President’s plan to create a better bargain for the middle-class by partnering with local communities and businesses to create jobs, increase economic security, expand educational opportunities, increase access to quality, affordable housing and improve public safety.” However, the Promise Zone is just a misnaming, an other naming, of what came before under previous administrations as “Empowerment Zones” and “Enterprise Zones” (Reagan and Clinton as examples). With these purported “promises“ are a bootstrap-like mentality, the people whose necks are under the boot of empire are the ones required to make a promise to empire, to better citizens for its goals and purposes. But so far, we on the left have raised little voice against such violent policies that leave the structures producing inequity intact. Though we’ve written lots about Beyoncé’s feminism and Ani DiFranco’s plantation blues and (the quite terrible) Macklemore’s win of four Grammy’s, much less has been said from our circles about the cycles of violence and violation. There is a gap, of which we are not minding, between the profession of faith in social justice and that which rouses us to collective outcry and action. Or, more precisely, the actions which we engage often are in the service of articulating the personal, private individual, the enlightened bourgeois subject, through acts of personal, private social piety.

iii
Some of us took it to the walls, paint on rollers and got to work, making old t-shirts a bit dirty, meeting folks along the way. Others of us, perhaps, donned tool belts, put nails in drywall and through wood. Some of us went to food banks, placing rice in bags for a few hours. This is what has become of the day to remember Martin Luther King, Jr., plain ole personal good feelings. The day to remember King has been co-opted by the government since 1994, officially called a “Day of Service.” And there is something pernicious about the exchange of the seeming immemorial death and remembrance of Martin Luther King, Jr. with volunteer work, replacing the radical force and ethical charge of King’s black disbelief against the conditions of the world from the political zone of dissent against empire with projects that consume our time, replacing the affective labor of black radicalism with the ways to feel self-satisfied about a “job well done” through service projects. We live in a moment of aversion.

bho-volunteering

 

What was engaged that day were projects grounded in a logics of aversion, projects that take our energies away from considering the conditions that produced King’s assassination. Through “service,” our attention was diverted towards rearticulating the personal, private individual as most in need of development. The personal, private individual is the one who volunteers, who does projects, who addresses needs of communities mired in poverty, inequity in education and victims of food insecurity. All the various well meaning projects can make us a little bit exhausted, can introduce us to various folks we’ve never met, and can allow us, at day’s end, to be self-satisfied. These projects let us gather around a concept called volunteerism with hopes that such a concept will have within the power to rename our realities. It is a misnaming steeped in a belief in the power of words themselves to do the work of justice.

 

What are you doing on Martin Luther King’s birthday?

I’m volunteering!

 

What got King assassinated, however, was not a simplistic notion of service, was not the articulation of a political subject of the state as most in need of protection. King was not assassinated, in other words, because of the notion that his identity as a black man was a particularly unique and individuating mode of victimhood. Rather, his murder emerged from his recognition of the fact that until we attempt to unsettle and uproot systemic structures of inequity, that we simply participate in the perpetuation of American exceptionalism. He spoke out – finally – not just against racism, but also against warfare and American militarism and, also against poverty. King, like Baldwin’s Roy, began to mind the gap between the rhetoric of the “greatest nation” and the forms of violence it produces globally. King became aware of the ways empire itself produces inequity at home and any abroad. And the tactic of American empire has been to mute his radicality and critique, to appease us with feel-good service projects, such that we think Barack Obama is a logical extension, rather than an vulgarization, of King’s life struggles. Simply, the word “service” has come to replace justice work, the act of personal volunteeristic piety has come to replace the hard labors of struggling against empire.

This misnaming is not unique to King and a “Day of Service.” This misnaming, this oversimplification of words, is what has allowed the ongoing opening of Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp that has detainees whom have never been charged with any crime at all, detainees who have been cleared for release. This oversimplification of words is what has the Affordable Care Act touted to be “universal” healthcare rather than, say, single-payer health insurance, which would, not just in rhetoric but also practice, be “universal.” These various misnamings are made possible through the logics of aversion, through a turning and turning away from the injustices right in front of us, turning and turning away with hopes that naming will otherwise do the work of justice.

King’s was a critical intervention grounded in the spiritual practice and exercise of black disbelief, not in some sort of secularity that was about becoming a political subject of the state, about becoming a proper citizen. Misnaming is a problem of the secularizing – having an aversion for certain forms of social practice – of our society. Secularizing makes certain concepts available universally through a liquidation of the radicalized potential and force, leaving unchanged the inequity that produces the desire for secular civil society. What we have, then, is a secularized King, a defanged and muted object, no longer produced by and producing black disbelief as an antagonistic way of life, but now an object of suffering that is merely exchangeable. Though King was certainly about serving others, what is meant and produced by the “Day of Service” and making a political claim on his service is that King becomes a politically coherent object that serves the interests of empire, he becomes a symbol in empire’s hands and, thus, exploitative powers.

king-party

Such that there is not much difference between the promotional flyers of Martin Luther King, Jr. celebration parties and the calls for service work in his name. The flyers simply makes explicit the objectification that undergirds the latter, while at the same time, the latter comes with it a moralizing stance and operates in the service of empire building.

iv
An Oversimplification of Her Beauty is a sumptuous, gorgeous, moving film. A complex set of images, An Oversimplification of Her Beauty is about the possibilities for love, for thinking about and experiencing emotions when there is complexity built into, but unspoken within, relationships. An Oversimplification of Her Beauty begins with the tale of an artist who is one night stood up by a would be lover friend and the varied feelings he has for her. This beginning is announced in a film titled How Would You Feel. But immediately as this first film begins, it is interrupted by another film, An Oversimplification of Her Beauty as that interruptive force, to give context, to give flesh and meaning to what is in the first, original film. So with How Would You Feel, viewers gain an entry into the psychology of the filmmaker and his feelings about “her.” In An Oversimplification of Her Beauty, viewers gain an understanding of “him,” his previous relationships, his complexities. This collection of films is about black disbelief, refusing the conditions of the single narrative to tell the story, displacing the single author, the single medium, the single voice in order to have various voices, textures, colors, media types to present a set of interconnected stories.

oversimplification-1

And through the film, we come to learn that oversimplification seeks to make rational the feeling of beauty. Feeling itself, it seems, is something in need of control. Oversimplification is the reduction of excess, the discarding of the not easily named emotional registers of inhabiting the world. Oversimplification is fundamentally a secularizing of the object of our affections. But the two films – each interrupting the other – move through several narrative voices in blurry places, in the middle of passages, in the middle of words; it is sometimes animated, sometimes live-action, sometimes puppetry; it is repetitious while also varying themes with each repetitious return. As such, the film seeks to unsettle such secularity by celebrating the excess of performance and form: everything from voice to artistic visual representation, from documentary to fictional presentation, all to get at something about “her” beauty, the beauty she has that augments and interrupts him.

oversimplification-2

The film is a critical intervention into, and an interruption of, oversimplification of words, of sentiments. It refuses singular form in order to trouble linear narrativity. It is an ethical film, a film about the gap between words and actions, the zone of the oversimplified. But the film speaks back from that zone to say those that have been oversimplified are anything but simple. When “her” finally speaks, she speaks with depth, with care, with precision, with love. She, a character of black disbelief, speaks against the ease with which she is narrated in How Would You Feel as simplistic. She interrupts the ease with which she is misrepresented, the ease with which she is turned into an object of his suffering for exchange in the film.

oversimplification-3

I have been bothered by the concept and theological idea of rapture for some time but it seems to structure the ways in which we inhabit our western world. Rapture is about escaping the conditions of suffering “when the trump shall sound” with folks leaving the “unsaved” behind to live in a world of crisis. The concept of rapture, it seems, is fundamentally about escaping conditions rather than inhabiting them, it oversimplifies by removing ourselves from the fleshliness of reality. I think we have purchased the concept that “the personal is political” wholesale without much interrogation on either side of the “is,” which unfortunately has gifted us this present moment that easily oversimplifies through words. Often, what is named is a personal set of infractions – “the personal” – as a means to speak about the uniqueness of one’s experience over and against the experiences of others, as a means to disrupt and shut down the possibility for interrogation. “The personal” is not about the capacity to be in the world with others but is, in effect, about the capacity to disengage in the service of personal, private protection from the world. It is antithetical to social justice because it disallows a conversation about structural inequity because the specificity of “the personal” as an example becomes the example par excellence. And “the personal” is often about the articulation of a set of infractions that makes of someone a victim, such that their sense of identity is grounded in such victimhood, and such victimhood becomes the shield against which no interrogation can occur. “The personal” is the elaboration of the bourgeois subject.

Then also on the other side of the “is,” is a need for interrogating “the political.” This concept is not neutral and has its own sets of problematics: political but towards what end? are we attempting to become the political subject of the state? If so, whatever is named as “the personal” used to articulate one’s capacity to be this subject of the state is, then, a problem that needs to be unsettled, disrupted. How Would You Feel is the articulation of “the personal” against which An Oversimplification of Her Beauty emerges as the interruptive force. The latter film refuses rapture, in its beautiful blackness, the film disbelieves in disengagement as the means to produce justice. It recognizes that rapture is not grounded in disbelief but a general disengagement from the fleshliness of our milieu.

v
There is something cool happening on subways in New York City. Kids are claiming space, expanding the possibility of movement, expanding – at the same time – the limits of imagination. There is something cool happening on subways in New York City. Gays are claiming space, expanding the possibility of movement, expanding – at the same time – the imagination for queer inhabitation, for queer livability. What makes the zone of the subway – a constrained, closed space on the move – the site from which emerges a critique of oversimplification? Why is this a zone from which to give an aesthetic intervention and interruption that misreads the normative ideologies of criminality for black young people in spaces where Stop and Frisk are normalized?

These various movements – while on the train on the move – are the critique of inertia, the movements of kinesthetic energy against potential and kinesthetic flesh, about striking a balance between movement and inhabitation. Theirs are movements on the move, movements that critique the ways of seeing them as potential criminals, potential threats to safety, potential enactors of violence. They utilize the confinement of subway cars to articulate other modes of being, they explode the potential energy of constraint through occupying the space with difference. They speak back, through performance, to how blackness, black flesh, is oversimplified and through such speaking back, fill the space with abundance, with excess, with ethical force. With each step, with each flip, with each pole dance, with each vogue, they not only articulate a disbelief in the conditions of the quotidian, they enunciate and elaborate the imagination towards otherwise possibilities. They pick up on Roy’s ethical charge, they ground themselves in Nina’s rhetorical dehiscence, they perform the doubleness of disbelief. They make, in other words, the world anew through a refusal of oversimplification of words.

to be well fed

i.
We are a discarded people. But perhaps such being discarded may prove to be cause for celebration. We are off to the side and undergrounded, indeed, but even still, right there. Right here. On street corners, pants saggin. In project apartments, tenement housing and unaffordable “affordable” units. In urban, ex-burban and suburban areas. Academies of the streets, of the universities. In boardrooms too. In mosques and churches, synagogues and Buddhist temples. Here and in the otherwise, we discarded are skilled in simultaneity, we have a particular orientation to the world. Ours is an orientation that does not find its genesis in the violent and violative experience of being thrown away, though our orientation certainly uses such experience, such trauma, as a means to practice and perform critical intervention. Being discarded, in other words, is not a totalizing force. Ask Henry “Box” Brown, his becoming a thing, a discardable parcel, as a means to enact sociality and liberation. Ask Harriet Jacobs, stilling her flesh, throwing herself away, discarding herself inside a crawlspace, finding fugitive flight through withdrawing. Ask fictive Maud Martha, a young girl who found that what is to be cherished in life are dandelion weeds we so haplessly uproot because they are of no value, because they are ordinary.

Ours – the discarded – is a history of refusing the totalizing force and disruptive nature of being unwanted, of being used and removed after being exhausted. We, the discarded, mobilize constraint in the cause of justice. We, the discarded, instrumentalize being waste, being excess, because we know that being valued in a political economy of fundamental inequity is to suppress our ability to speak, act, perform truth to power. We offer a critique of the world given us. This world constitutes itself through removing that which exceeds boundaries, that which can be, in effect, thrown away. The discarded are that constituting force. But importantly, we make worlds against the very imposition of being relegated to being discardable. And by such world making, with such celebration of the capacity to create, is the exceeding beyond the violence and violation of relegation. Like Maud Martha, we discover in the ordinary everydayness of our worlds, that indeed, there is much that should be cherished in the zone of excess, in the zone and inhabitation of the discarded.

ii.
The children escaped from enslavement, dwelling in a wilderness that seemed unending. And the children, the Hebrew community, were hungry. They besought their deity in order to find sustenance and in such seeking, eventually, were fed quail and manna for days on end. However, after eating this meal one too many times, these wilderness dwellers, in between captivity and new lands yet to be conquered, began to complain. Though they received daily provisions, theirs was a sustenance that lacked variety. I have heard this particular biblical story sermonized several times but never considered from the vantage and worldview of the wilderness wanderers. They should not, preachers would offer to congregants, complain. How dare they be delivered from captivity only to complain that what was provided was not enough?! Of course, this biblical story about sustenance was supposed to teach folks in our time how to behave, how to be grateful when our bellies are full, even if we are less than excited by the things we’re offered. Hunger, it is thought, is a biologically determined accident of flesh but variety – such spice of life – is only for those that can afford such.

Sermonizers I’ve heard discuss this story end up criticizing desire and pleasure; that because the Hebrews were newly freed from enslavement, they should be content with their provisions being met and have no concern about desiring variety, variety that could provide pleasurable experience. They lacked resources and that lack was supposed to interdict the capacity for aesthetic choice. They should lack, in other words, taste. Sermonizers end up implying that though everyone deserve to eat, some certainly should not desire more than mere sustenance being met. Yet what we can glean from the story, if considered from the worldview of the newly emancipated, is that one’s condition of poverty does not take away the capacity for enjoyment, for desiring joy, for wanting sumptuous, exquisitely excessive pleasure. Fighting for desire and pleasure with food, fighting for varieties of flavor, is to contend for one’s fleshliness, is to petition for the “vivid thereness” of the discarded. This contending and petitioning will be grounded in the very zone of experience that is purportedly discardable: the excesses of pleasure and desire.

Underlying these varied critiques that sermonizers give is that there are certain categories of lack, lack created by systemic and institutional inequities to be sure, which should forestall anything like a complaint from the one receiving benefits, insurance. This critique of pleasure and desire of the flesh is not relegated to Judeo-Christian sermonizers. This critique is the way that capitalist nation-states structure relations to impoverished peoples, peoples whose appetites for pleasure and desire are likewise deemed discardable.

December 28, 2013, 1.3 million people lost Unemployment Insurance (UI) benefits. The opinion of lawmakers is that when UI benefits are limited rather than expanded temporally, folks without employment will seek jobs quickly and reenter the job force. But North Carolina was a testing ground for such vulgar thinking and it was found that chronic unemployment – folks who have been out of work for longer than one year – increased rather than decreased. The longer one is out of the labor force, in other words, the more difficult it is to become employed again. Some of us, perhaps, felt it the weekend of October 9, when Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits were compromised because of a database error at Xerox. To learn, at that moment, that the very few funds given to people to assist with making food ends meet is bound up with private industry was telling (JP Morgan, along with Xerox, also profits from poverty). But more than the temporary rupture in the benefits that weekend – when people at various supermarket retails left full shopping carts because they had no other method of payment – was the decrease in SNAP benefits for roughly 47 million Americans November 1, 2013.

When SNAP benefits cards were shutdown because of the electronic errors, people took to Twitter and Facebook to create funny memes: purportedly funny were images of women and men passed out on streets, saddened because they could not get food; purportedly funny were hashtags that laughed at people on line becoming angry because of this unforeseen error meaning that they would not be able to feed themselves or their children. People began having a general conversation about how people “on food stamps” exploit the system, how they’re simply lazy and refuse to work, how they don’t even really deserve the money they get to eat with, how they should just stop having so many kids. Fundamentally, in other words, was a critique of pleasure and desire because certain stations in life, because, in other words, one is impoverished. One should not complain about what is given them because, foundationally, one does not deserve to eat well, one does not deserve to have a job they enjoy. One should be happy SNAP benefits only decreased to roughly $1.40 per person per meal rather than nothing at all because, you know, even this small amount is too much because, you know, those folks are lazy and oversexed and scantily clad and and and …

We narrativize against impoverished people instead of the conditions of inequity that create poverty. And this narrativizing finds its genesis in a critique of pleasure and desire itself as something wily and out of control, something that impoverished peoples do not rationally utilize nor understand. We do not think, to be precise, some folks should be well fed because we understand appetite to emerge from the zone of deservement.

iii.
Perhaps Michel Foucault was wrong, perhaps moralizing against pleasure is not only relegated to the sexual. Or perhaps we must expand upon Foucault and consider the ways some folks, whatever behaviors they engage including eating, is always already coded as sexual. And, more, coded and considered sexually deviant. Appetite, who does and does not deserve to be well fed, is a means of conceiving populations and modes of sexual deviance. The idea of the welfare queen is instructive. Poverty through the pleasures and desires for food become modes of trauma, sexual identification and taxonomic affiliation. This categorical distinction itself is an ever-widening expanse, allowing for the articulation of governance and inequity. In the figure of the welfare queen, for example, is the interarticulation of gender, affectional orientation, class, and because of children, the reproductivity of “bad” citizenry, and food consumption. When this figure is attacked, in other words, pleasure itself is the target and, more implicitly even, we make of food consumption that which yields a categorical distinction for sexuality. Such that by decreasing SNAP benefits and Unemployment Insurance benefits, which will necessarily target the same populations while also making a claim that these persons receive “too much,” a necessarily moral injunction is levied against the impoverished folks as a category of sexuality. These economic attacks attempt to curb sexual deviance.

Foucault questions: “how, why, and in what forms was sexuality constituted as a moral domain? Why this ethical concern that was so persistent despite its varying forms and intensity?” We might think of poverty then, perhaps, also as a zone that is marshaled to articulate a mode of sexual difference for the state. If this is so then the reduction in SNAP and UI benefits is part of the generalizable moralizing against desire and pleasurable behaviors of impoverished peoples. This is the same moralizing that was found, for instance, during former President Bill Clinton’s welfare reform that included the language of “personal responsibility” and gave incentives for families that appeared heterosexual through the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act (PRWORA) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). Both these programs targeted sexual behaviors as in need of rationalizing instruments and tools by way of marriage training and shaming families’ moralities that refused to cohere with such nation-building measures. TANF was specifically created to address out-of-wedlock births and marriage rates for low-income Americans.

Pleasure and desire – together – become the primary figuration of excess itself, that which refuses rationality and coherence. This figuration transforms pleasure and desire into that which is not only discardable but, in order to have proper thought, necessarily must be thrown away. And this in the service of achieving some purported higher, moral good. This is as true for what arguments in favor of or against Beyoncé’s possible feminism do to pleasure and desire as it is true for the reduction of SNAP benefits and the reduction of Unemployment Insurance assumes about the moral lack, the excesses and luxuries, of poverty’s pleasure. The discarding of pleasure and desire is as true for the moralizing against, and thus the ban of, large sodas and other sugary beverages that impact consumers at 7-11 but not Starbucks in New York City as it is for incarcerated persons having food historically and contemporarily targeted as a site of punishment. Food consumption and who is allowed to be well fed is a battlefield for contending against inequity.

What is the affective labor and mode of moralizing against poverty pleasure? They just don’t deserve it, “it,” it seems to me, being pleasurable experience itself, desire fulfilled. Being impoverished is supposed to shame us into being good citizens who produce, work and operate out of duty rather than pleasure. We are to act rationally, not passionately. Being impoverished is not only supposed to make of us discardable but this station in life is supposed to utilize and exploit our desire and pleasure as that which is most immediately and necessarily discardable in order to create of us proper citizens.

iv.
Just what do we see when we look at trash? Tim Noble and Sue Webster compel this question with their various projects that reuse discarded materials, trash, and configure them into constructions with depth, weight and texture. With their work, viewers must stand in particular proximity to objects in order to notice the various forms of life, sociality and discarded pleasures that make up any projected image.

Wasted Youth (2000)

The various images on walls emerge from shadows. The skill and care that Noble and Webster put into the construction lets at least this viewer consider the intricacies of any sociality, including most fundamentally those socialities of the discarded. Soda bottles and cans, food containers, rolls of toilet paper, cups, plates, even taxidermy animals assist with the construction of these art objects. Passing them without the projection on the wall, one might wonder what is located in the depth and layers of the construction. But certainly one would not immediately think that something could emerge from shining a light on these constructions. Importantly, then, the object which emerges on walls because of the shone light bodies forth in darkness, in blackness itself. The sociality of the discarded shares a fundamental constitutive relation with the idea of blackness.

Shadow Sculpture
Wild Mood Swings (2009-10)

There is both desire and pleasure one finds when viewing both the discarded materials and shadows of blackness that appear on walls. The desire is to know more about the figures so-constructed, the lives created and fashioned from such thrown away materials. But more, one finds pleasure in the very sensual experience of, delight and joy with, the discovery of what is projected. A smile, a furrowed brow, a destabilizing of knowledge produced by trash, by objects already having been exhausted producing, yet and still, other worlds of existence. We discover the possibility for capacious, manifold narrative that resists dominant understandings of the discarded. And perhaps resistance, Kima Jones tells us, “is the only thing that makes life worth telling.”

I have struggled and wrestled with this Youtube video for a few weeks now. In it, Reese Napper-Williams sings about the power of her chosen deity to rescue her “just in the nick of time.” She does not have, it seems to me, the best voice. There are, it is certain, singers who could have technically sung with stronger voices, with more clarity and precision. Napper-Williams, instead, wavers and struggles to achieve some notes, is a bit flat here, a bit sharp there. She belts out and then the voice thins. Yet, her rendition moves me. What she has is a certain conviction. Listen to what she sings at 5:38

I was going down
But you came in the nick of time
I was going crazy
After I lost my baby
You came in the nick

He came in the nick of time
Came in the nick of time
I thought I would lose my mind
But he stepped in right on time

Writing her words, however, does not capture how she sang them, how it was performed, how the performance was the constitution and construction of the discarded, of blackness, of that which was easily discardable. Her words linger and eclipse the written word through melsmatic rupture. She gave it style. But she did not sing alone. She sang with a choir and congregation behind and in front of her, egging her on, yelping and screaming and moaning, raising hands and jumping up and down, particularly after she said, “After I lost my baby.” There is something there, in the performance itself, which refuses being relegated to the zone of being written. There is pleasure and desire that only emerges when one gets down with the congregation, there is a narrative to which we do not have access, though it is echoed in her refrain and the eruptive encouragement such refrain received.

Is this not what Noble and Webster discover: that shining light on discarded and unthought objects produces the blackness of such discarded materiality, the blackness of such sociality? Shining the light is about allowing the texture of discarded life to be as it is. And as it is, it already is its otherwise. Napper-Williams tells narrative through resistance because her life, the life of the choir and congregation, the life of the performance, depend on such telling.

And we tell the story of the discarded, we tell the story of the 1.3 million whom have lost Unemployment Insurance and have decreased SNAP benefits, because this telling is necessary to celebrate the lives of the discarded. We tell because of the pleasure and desire that is celebrated in Napper-Williams’s singing, in the congregation’s antiphonal reply, in Noble and Webster’s art objects are also a functional critique of inequity that we experience. This pleasure and desire posit the possibility of another mode of inhabitation.

vi.
My friend sat across the table from me and explained how her mother used food stamps – when they were stamps – to keep the cupboards, refrigerator and deep freezer filled with food. Hers is a family of many siblings and her mother wanted to always ensure that she and her progeny were well fed. This desire for being well fed, and the pleasure generated by the capacity to do such, emerges from love, from an irrepressible and inexhaustible force of desiring justice not just for one’s own person, but for that of others as well. My friend and I talked about how, in times past, people would go to neighbors’ houses asking for sugar, butter, milk, eggs, whatever if necessary, and that there was no shame felt in such asking. But more, there was no shame – nor feeling of superiority or patronization – in such giving. What was had was had in common, as commons, as between, and thus with, us all. My friend and I eat together at tables all across Los Angeles not simply because we are hungry but because the table provides a space for sharing, for giving and receiving care and concern. We eat not because it is deserved but because there is appetite, there is pleasure and desire to be had and fulfilled. We eat together as a mode of sociality as an otherwise than religious confessional spiritual practice. Like Sufi dervishes taking vows of poverty, begging not for themselves but for others; like Christian community knowing that “blessed are the poor in spirit,” the sociality of the discarded emerge through emptying our personhood for communal justice. We eat together as a means to inhabiting our flesh, to forcing the worlds that have discarded us to see that even in such liminality is the possibility for celebration. This should not be a privilege.

We must be willing to speak forcefully against such inequity. We must create hashtags about UI and SNAP benefits as quickly as we created petitions against Ani DiFranco, as quickly and intensely as we wrote #BeyoncéThinkPieces. If we do not, we dismiss and dispel concerns for justice to the zone of the Political rather than allowing it to remain with us, the discarded. To not speak is to refuse excessively sensual experience of sociality in which we participate, it is to repress pleasure and desire in the service of politics. But we are already here…construction of the otherwise has begun.