so when i was first deciding to come out as a gay [yes. said. just like that. lol], i really thought that the most important thing to do was to reconcile my spiritual life with my sexual desires and orientation. i thought that once that work was done that the work of justice would be complete, that i’d have a clear way to think about the world and how to interrogate it. and that because i thought so much of what i was experiencing in terms of cognitive, emotional and spiritual dissonance was because of the conflictual and complex and contradictory messages and thoughts and ideas and behaviors i was experiencing and noticing among others. i thought once i finally reconciled my spiritual practice with my sexual orientation, then i could be a regular preacher. i figured that what was needed was a simplistic widening of the theological circle, of theological thought, to include me …
and that’s all true. i needed to be included. and i am quite glad i figured out – with a community of folks that held me up and accountable, that showed me otherwise ways to live – i’m glad i was allowed space to figure out how to do that reconciling work.
what was so unsettling was that that reconciliation was so very me-based, it was so very individualistic. and, eventually, such a reconciliation was unsatisfying. it was when i began to think about empire, when i began to really think about how economy and politics affect the everyday living of folks, that i began to think more broadly and to put much less emphasis on my personal, private practice of personal, private spirituality – and importantly, the personal, private practice of personal, private sexuality. it was only when i began – again, with help of community that would hold me accountable – to connect concerns about one’s erotic life to the violent policing that is empire, when i began to think about how empire requires of us to submit to its will, how it requires of us to accept inequity as normative and immovable, it is when i began to think about all those things that the stakes became a lot more clear. the stakes are not fundamentally about my or your personal, private practices of personal, private erotics or other behaviors. the stakes are about the dismantling, the uprooting and discarding of systems that have us bound, systems that perpetuate violence, famine, lack … systems that have the many fight for squandered resources. and insofar as our differences – in terms of erotics, spiritual practice, race or class – marks us, our differences are sent into the world to make us know with stunning clarity that otherwise is possible. (sent: “[A] whole bunch of things sent me to say it…And that’s what I mean – to be sent, to be transported out of yourself, it’s an ecstatic experience, it’s not an experience of interiority, it’s an experience of exteriority, it’s an exteriorization. And so we’re sent. We’re sent to one another. We are sent by one another to one another.) we are sent into the world with the various, infinite differences we carry in order to critique the normative function and form of this inequitable world, to imagine that there is otherwise possibility.
a good friend said to me that we often “don’t realize the deep level of interrogation required” and i think that’s true. so much of the way we think our relation to the world has to be interrogated to really be committed to dismantling systems of oppression. i don’t want a religious community to accept my gay-as-hell-ness while also being a religious community complicit with warfare, with violence against black, brown and indigenous peoples, terrible immigration practices, water shutoffs, homelessness, joblessness, neoliberal logics of school and healthcare privatization, etc.
the stakes are high. we are contending against nothing but systemic world inequity, produced by the very thing that gives or withholds from us our “rights.” and this is not easy. and this is not fun. but it is urgent and necessary.
there is much required of you. and me. to put your hand to the plow of justice means to commit to connecting the dots, to being unflinching – even when, especially if, we are fatigued and tired – to keep pressing. but we press together with community, we share the load, we bear the burden together. there’s so much more to do. but it’s not up to me or you or anyone else to do it alone … but it is up to us that are committed to justice to work together, even through disagreement and argument about how such work gets done, to commit to being with each other in community, to struggling together. because empire would have us be separated…and fighting each other so that it can do its perpetual violence in its many guises.
Blackness and Performance: Black Performance Theory ETST 243E-001, Winter 2015 Monday 12:40-3:30pm, INTN 4043 Professor Ashon Crawley firstname.lastname@example.org Office Hours: Mondays 10:30am-12:30pm
The purpose of this course is to introduce students to Black Performance Theory, how it has been figured in past and current studies, and how we might anticipate the futures of such a field, such a concept. Performance Theory is an interdisciplinary zone of articulation, a mode of study and inquiry that privileges multiple currents, sources, concepts. The course will consider performance in a variety of guises and presentations, we will consider, in Diana Taylor’s words, how performances are “vital acts of transfer.” We will consider what is transferred, from and to what, to whom, why and how. We will interrogate and ruminate. Perhaps we will sing. Perhaps we will paint. Maybe act. Or draw. Or play. We will, regardless, come together in the cause of producing something like a critique of the current configuration of an unjust world, asking how Performance – Black Performance – serves as a necessary intervention. To steal away is the topical thrust, the undergrounded verve of black performance, to steal away is – to riff off Zora Neale Hurston – the unceasing theme around which black performance varies. It is a different relation to time and space, the grounds for, without being educated into, modernity. Thus Black Performance produces for us an ethical demand to vary and antagonize, to be restless and restive against the dominant political economy and its ordering of the world.
And it is important and necessary and urgent, it seems, to think rigorously about an otherwise mode of inhabitation, an otherwise mode of being in the world and how performance, black performance, is constantly engaged in the production of the otherwise, the otherwise as stealing away. Between Eric Garner’s murder, the genocide just this past summer in Palestine, the murder of Mike Brown, Ezell Ford, Kajieme Powell, John Crawford, Tanisha Anderson, Tamir Rice and the various non-indictments of police violence and terrorism, performance has been harnessed for its possibilities to critique and produce an ethical demand on the world. Such that we are not merely theorizing and abstracting in order for knowledge to produce the university as a cloistered away zone. Rather, considering the gravity of black performance will give us means to intervene into the world. The ultimate goal of this class is an ethical one: to ask how shall we live given the ongoingness of state violence against we that are marginalized? And what can performance offer us in the way of a reply?
In order to have a robust conversation weekly, and given the delimitation of eight – rather than ten – weeks, each week we will consider multiple performances and how they elucidate, complicate and highlight what blackness is, can be. As such, we all will be responsible for locating performances and practices that will be shared during weekly meetings that you believe are in dialogue with the reading for the week. You will also have to produce a weekly essay of 500 words that speaks to the performance chosen; this essay will be shared in the first half of class. After sharing the performance or practice along with the essay, we will open up for conversation that is grounded in the reading for the week. Each week, we will attend to the method of writing, writing as performance practice. We will attend to that of our own writing as well as that of the authors we will engage.
Readings From: “Performance Studies: Interventions and Radical Research” – Conquergood Performance Studies: An Introduction – Schechner Unmarked: The Politics of Performance – Phelan
“Ephemera as Evidence: Introductory Notes to Queer Acts” – Muñoz Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics – Muñoz Appropriating Blackness – Johnson Black Performance Theory – DeFrantz and Gonzalez Excitable Speech – Butler Performance: A Critical Introduction – Carlson Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America – Hartman In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition – Moten Black, White and in Color – Spillers Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity – Sedgwick Bodies in Dissent: Spectacular Performances of Race and Freedom – Brooks
i The urgency to write has never felt more acute. To attend to, even through what seems to be utter powerlessness and fatigue, the atrocities being felt globally on both large and small scales is necessary. But how to do so, how to respond with a precision and clarity and depth and nuance and rigor. And, most importantly, care. To want to respond with care. And yes, as a modality of care, to respond with beauty. To desire the beautiful against violence and death. To trade beauty for ashes, to trade joy for mourning. All this is desirous now, even within – and pertinently because it emerges against – such varied, interrelated, large and small sorts of suffering. To imagine the otherwise, to live into it, to love and want it, to find that it already is and has always been enacted. Has always been with us. All it takes is a looking, a listening.
We come from and are within the tradition of the otherwise. The pattin juba. The work song, the raised spiritual. The hallelujah anyhow, nevertheless, in spite of. The moan, the shout. The play cousin and auntie, the mee-maw, mom-mom. The pop-pop. The “she be liiiiiike.” The habitual be.
We come from and are and enact and announce what Amiri Baraka called the omm bomm ba boom. And this omm bomm ba boom is an energy, a force of vitality, flow. Keeps us alive against wishes for premature, social and physical death. Somehow, we make it.
Violently excluded through law, as law, violently targeted by law, our flesh severed and ripped and chained; cuffed, ghettoed, held in occupation in militarized zones both here and there. The history of black flesh in western civilization is the perfecting of carceral and militarized terror, from pattyrollers to paddy rollers. The history of indigenous flesh in western civilization is the perfecting of genocide, of total obliteration and intense, intentional acts of forgetting. Access to resources – health, education, financial, food, shelter, air – obliterated, obliterated only insofar as we ever actually had full and free access in the first place. Yet the violently excluded created in the otherwise, with, in and through the verve of the oom bomm ba boom, not merely from or because of duress. But created because beauty and joy are there, flourish there, in the omm bomm ba boom. Created with, in and through because the omm bomm ba boom does not find its genesis or originary moment in acts of violence but, rather, rises to the occasion of violence. It is what we have, it is what we outpour. The violence of law cannot create joy or beauty. No wonder why it’s across the railroad tracks, in the zones of the excluded, that those considered to have everything eternally return to sit with, learn from, voyeuristically interrogate and almost always misappropriate those of us considered to have and be nothing.
The omm boom ba boom is a resource of perpetually imagining, while enacting in such imaginative drive, an otherwise. Here, now. Then, there.
ii There is an episode of “Twilight Zone” that I remember watching when I was a very young child. Titled “A Little Piece and Quiet,” the episode is about a housewife named Penny that was bothered by the noisiness of the world in which she lived. Awakened daily by a loud alarm clock, barking dogs, phones ringing, loud children and annoying husband, Penny simply wanted a space of reprieve, a Sabbath from noise, from the daily, ongoing clamor that seemed to her to be inescapable. While digging in her garden one day, she found a box containing a pendant and begins to wear the newfound jewelry. Later in the day, while her children were fighting and her husband was pestering her about his ripped shirt, she screamed “shut up” and time stopped. Finally, a moment of peace and quiet. The phrase “start talking” would allow time to begin again.
But the episode is not only about loud children and the complaints of a husband. It is fundamentally about warfare and fear about nuclear weaponry. First aired in 1985, the episode is primarily about tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union. Throughout the episode were anti-nuclear weapons and Penny stopped time in order to be unbothered by them while shopping. The show ends with a problem: the United States is being bombarded with missiles from the Soviet Union and Penny froze time just … in time. She left the house to see people standing in the street looking at a missile just over the city about to make contact and, it is presumed, destroy everything and everyone. She had to decide if she would live in the quietude of this stopped time or if she would allow for the destroying of the world. In either case, sociality would be fundamentally annihilated.
This doomsday analysis where there is a rock and a hard place, where there are two insufferable options, seems to animate lots of contemporary “life after the end of the world” movies and television I’ve seen recently. Movies like Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Snowpiercer, The Dark Knight Rises and television shows like The Leftovers each appear, in their own way, to exist within the logic of desiring a little peace and quiet that is nothing other than the choice between being utterly destroyed or being absolutely solitary. Each movie has its own plot, of course, so I’m conflating a bit for a larger point. These depictions of life after revolution, after the end of the earth, never disrupt the logic of whiteness and neoliberalism after the so-called revolutionary moments are enacted, after the “end of the world” as is currently known. The Dark Knight Rises, for example, could not decided if it wanted to be a critique of Wall Street and hypercapitalism, and the exploitation of the masses or if it wanted to be a critique against the masses, the commons, that produce such revolutionary pushback against the neoliberal state. Snowpiercer could only imagine getting off the train through side doors, never imagining people to be otherwise than self-motivated and self-absorbed when given the opportunity to lead. Planet of the Apes simply makes animals that have been exploited mirror the selfish, egotistical impulses of bad humans such that “revolution” that would overthrow inequitable power is co-constitutive with egotistical creatures that want to, excuse the term, “ape” the bourgeois subject of enlightened thought. And The Leftovers simply has lamentable characters that have nothing celebratory to give, have nothing other than melancholy through which to work, nothing but sadness, depression and despair.
Each depiction, in other words, is grounded in a refusal to think the radical tradition, the black radical tradition, the radical imagination of the otherwise that has always been enacted against the logics of western civilization’s theologies and philosophies of bourgeois subjects, rugged individuals, displacements from property, thefts of land. Each imagine from the axiom and necessity of whiteness and neoliberal anti-sociality as the only mode of organizing. They each grapple with the deleterious effects of western civilization without interrogating the grounds of this mode of civilizing the world. As such, each implodes and becomes undone by internal illogics, by internal conflictual loyalties. Each only imagines a kind of personhood that produces revolutionary upheaval or life after crisis through the perpetuation of individualist projects of narcissism and egotism. None of them considers the hard work and necessary sociality of the otherwise. Each can only imagine through forcing imagination to be within the bounds of the given, which is the known, world.
These films reflect our world, fearing the leaps and bounds of imaginative flights of fancy, they do not “think enough…”
iii The proliferation of warfare as quotidian, as an ordinary and everyday event, is here. And warfare has never only been about weapons that can produce death. Because of the interconnectivity of our digital and analogue world, we increasingly know this fact: warfare is about the evisceration of infrastructure. Stephen Graham, for example, writes, “The US and Israeli forces, for example, have worked systematically to ‘demodernize’ entire urban societies through the destruction of the infrastructure of Gaza, the West Bank, Lebanon, and Iraq since 1991. States have replaced total war against cities with the systemic destruction of water and electricity supplies with weapons – such as bombs which rain down millions of graphite spools to short-circuit electricity stations –designed specifically for this task.”
Or, in the case of Detroit, the state destroys simply by shutting off access to water by asserting that people would rather pay for cable television than life’s necessities. And I opine that this notion of television over and against water is simply another means to pathologize those that experience impoverishment because of the inequitable distribution of economic resources. Shutting off water in Detroit, the evisceration of infrastructural security and perhaps causing public health crises, is deemed an act countering the purported immorality and pathology of impoverished peoples. The Detroit water crisis is, in my estimation, an act of warfare. Detroit peoples are enemies of the state.
Warfare as currently established in and as law, in other words, is a mode of punishment not simply for so-called wrongdoers nor aggressors against the nation, but is a punishment for a generalized way of life, a form of organizing and existing with other people. Warfare targets not individuals, but collectivities that are thought to be – through vulgar theologies and philosophies, – antagonistic. Warfare creates crises: public health, educational, environmental, existential. War produces damage to city infrastructure such that perhaps now we can think the relation between Iraq and Chicago, Detroit and Palestine – which is to say, rethink the relation of the so-called here and there – anew. Perhaps the portmanteau Chiraq is more precise than is initially apparent.
Warfare, through law, is about the excess it creates, making singular events of shootings, bombings, massacres, into iterable examples. Warfare is the enactment of law and is about curtailing possible future actions. It seeks to control, before any action at all, the very thought of others, it is a delimitation, a refusal to think too much, a fear of imagination as the grounds of its operation. The force of excess punishment is then the basis for warfare. We see and notice this in general legal practices. Folks that are said to have “broken the law” are sentenced not just because of their infraction but harshly so, often, in order to “make an example” for others of what is possible, of what the state has the capacity to produce. Such punishment of individuals, then, is never about their rehabilitation but about making the singular event a generalizable moment. Such that, when considering warfare, the destruction of infrastructure and the supposed “collateral damage” deaths of civilians is always already justified within the delimitation of its own thought logics. The state, simply, cannot imagine liberation, freedom, viable life. The state can only proliferate by refusing imagination, by constricting thought to the already given bourgeois subject of enlightened thought as most in need of protection. This subject is produced through capitalism, through the financialization and militarization of everyday life. This subject is produced through the aversion to blackness and the obliteration of indigenes. This subject is produced through the fiction of categorical distinction, through making theological, philosophical, material borders that separate us from them, here from there.
iv Joshua fought the battle of Jericho by, for seven days, marching around a wall that operated through the theological and philosophical thought of pure distinction. Folks on one side of the wall were given protection against the people on the other side. Enemies were considered to occupy separated territories and such territories had to be made to be purely different. But territorial difference did not emerge because of the land, but because of the way people thought about the land. Such that racialization – differentiation based on a mode of thinking difference as impenetrable – was created through walls. Whether those walls are physical or simply enacted by passports, visas and the possibility of gun violence, it is time to rethink the efficacy of such distinctions. Borders between the US and Mexico, between Gaza and Israel, between Chicago and Iraq, each serve the function of producing theological-philosophical distinction that can be maintained, that can be made to be pure. And these distinctions serve to justify violence against whomever is construed as “outside” its thought limits. The people existing within, and separated by, such borders become the embodiment of empire’s ruse: that we are different from them, that we are distinctly from here and not there, that here and there are both separate and in need of militarized defense.
My research, in general, is animated by considering the problematics that arise when some kind of thought is considered purely, absolutely, impenetrably different from other kinds of thought. I interrogate theology and philosophy as categories of pure difference, categories that cohere by negating all kinds of material, animated, fleshly modes of organization. The material, animated, fleshly modes of organization are thought to be the inhibition to quiet, frozen, thoughtful reflection. Who decides what is and is not theological or philosophical thought except the one that claims oneself to be a theologian, a philosopher? This claim for oneself as the grounds from which to decide difference is what informs the sorta nation building and differentiation in our milieu. Reflecting on the borders that have made Gaza an open air prison, the walls that separate the United States from Mexico, the supposed difference between Chicago and Iraq, all have given me a way to think more rigorously and imaginatively about how manifestations of physical, state-sanctioned differentiation are simply modes of thinking difference.
Yet it seems that cities, states, are blurring lines of absolute difference. As one example, “The New York Police Department…has recently established a chain of ten overseas offices as part of its burgeoning anti-terror efforts.” What, then, is New York? What is that which marks its material distinction? What, in other words, does the “local” means in the age of digitization and militarization? The spread of municipal power through militarized surveillance and the always attendant possibility of combat makes these questions crucial. Militarization, the violence of empire, both produces categorical theological-philosophical distinction through borders while simultaneously it produces the “local,” now, as the possibility of violent encounter. The New York Police Department has expanded its reach by establishing offices overseas. The NYPD also surveils Muslim professors and students at University of Pennsylvania … in Philadelphia, PENNSYLVANIA and students at Yale in New Haven, CONNECTICUT. New York has produced itself as a city with a regulatory boundary that emerges from the capacity to surveil, to make certain groups enemy of its “municipality.” New York, in other words, is formed by what can happen to New York and the jurisdiction of policing now extends to any space, group, ideology, thought, mode of operation, mode of sociality, that they purport is a threat to that state configuration. With the spreading of NYPD, it is not that distinction itself has dissipated. Instead, the logic of distinction has been made more explicit, has been made to show itself as what it always was: a mode of thought, a theology-philosophy, a constrained, anti-imaginatory way to think the world. No longer is New York relegated to the land but is an ideology, producing with intensity the distinction between those that are thought to belong and those that do not. New distinctions, along with new territorial conflict, emerge concurrently.
Nahum Chandler, in his excellent work, elaborates how the operationalizing of pure distinction as the architectural core of western civilization finds its strongest articulation with W.E.B. Du Bois’s assertion, “the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line.” The current blurring of cities and states lines, through the spread of warfare tactics, seemingly do away with the calcifying of distinction, of difference as deficiency. Seemingly. What really proliferates is the logic of pure difference, the militarization of the color line. This makes of us all the possible enemies of the state. Eric Garner, according to some officers of the NYPD, became an enemy of the state of New York for attempting to sell untaxed cigarettes, ending in his murder. And people in France can be arrested for disturbing peace by protesting in the service of Palestinians. France, by refusing pro-Palestinian demonstrations, blurs the borders between itself and Israel. College students can be pepper sprayed and arrested for peaceful demonstration for lower tuition, militarizing even the college campus. The state produces difference, difference as enemy.
This is not to argue that difference doesn’t exist. This isn’t some melting pot cliché or desire for simple multiculturalism nor post-racialism. Rather, I am trying to point out that the logics of western civilization purport that difference is impenetrable – that it is unknowable – and as such, is fear-inducing and thus, must be controlled. Impenetrable difference is what must be pathologized by the nation-state, must be sought out, must be violently displaced in order to produce citizenship, to produce patriotism. To produce, in a word, sameness. The NYPD could not imagine that Eric Garner meant something to someone, that he was somebody. They could only think him through the theological-philosophical delimitation of the state, as black flesh in need of their harnessing and chokehold.
How dare she take what was used to destroy and desire something beautiful to emerge from it? Such desiring, such planting of flowers, is the critique of the ongoing violence and violation of Palestinians bordered off, sequestered, occupied by the state of Israel. But look, most profoundly, at her and his hands.
The pouring of water into grenade shells, the care and concern shown to the life that bursts forth and free from such desired death. This is the “hallelujah, anyhow.” It does not explain away death and destruction. What it demonstrates is that the force of imaginative possibility cannot be destroyed even by grenades, drones, ground attacks, airstrikes. Their hands delicately handle the would-be planters, their hands handle delicately the water bottles. A prayer released with each speck of dirt into the shell, with each droplet of water outpoured. A prayer and a breath. The otherwise imagined, the otherwise produced from the ruins, from the rubble, of violent encounter. The creation of a garden. The expansion of imagination.
Look at these children–not worried about fathers– Not moored to suffering Not considering what’s appropriate for public space Caring less about initiatives Look at their absolute joy.
How dare these kids not look to saccharine, pathologizing, state-sanctioned “initiatives” to produce life? How dare they dance, take up space, as so many flowers emerging from the rubble? How dare these kids still move in and through the world, making their fleshly reality something with which – with noise, and rhythm and blues – we must contend? Each “aaahh!” a demonstration of the otherwise. The otherwise as already here. Their “aaahh!” and claps and stomps and snaps are revolutionary upheaval, not predicated upon the destroying of the world or making the singular individual most responsible for other, hopeful outcomes. Rather, they produce together in the here and now, the then and there. Look at the flesh, the care and nuance given through elongation and splits, bends, twists.
Produced with new gardens, with new dances, are choreographies and itineraries for otherwise worlds. Produced with, in, and as the verve and force of imaginative, speculative possibility is the omm bomm ba boom. New gardens, new dances, are imaginative like the black simile, the “she be liiiiike…” as descriptive for someone’s behavior. After such a declaration of how someone “be like,” is typically a performance: a voice change, a demonstration of choreography, a walk, a talk. Being, in such a social world, is predicated upon the articulation, elaboration and ornamentation of what it means to be like but not. This being like but not is displacement. How dare those of us that have been, and still are today, displaced through practices of settler colonialism, enslavement, mass incarceration, poverty, food instability, water shutoffs, open air prisons, how dare we produce life out of such rubble, against the desires of the rubble, against the desires of empire? How dare the kids be like while dancing, how dare the family be like while planting flowers? We try, with each breath, to inculcate within us the omm bomm ba boom.
Amiri Baraka knew something of the omm bomm ba boom, the force of resistance against violent uprooting and displacement that empire seeks to destroy. His words, prophetic, poetic, speak to us today still. We in deep trouble because the omm bomm ba boom is being banned, the gathering together in the name and cause of justice is being criminalized, the thirst for water, shelter, food being razed by infrastructural attack. We gotta find, keep, hold and give away the omm bomm ba boom. If empire expands the understanding of itself through violence, we gotta expand the notion of who we are, who we be, who we be liiiike through enlarging the omm bomm ba boom in our hearts.
Stephen Graham, Cities Under Siege: The New Military Urbanism (London ; New York: Verso, 2011), xvi.
We have been named from the outside, yet remain unknown. Needed for coherence, we have been disavowed for our fleshly capacity to derange normativity. We – us blacks and queers and women and trans* people and and and – are varied, many, intersecting varied modalities of identity. We – us that are not white, cis, heterosexual, male folks – come in many forms. We have been marked as marginal and discardable only after we arrived, marked from varied sides, from every whichaway. And this after our arrival only because rule and law exists insofar as it tries to correct an already existent unruliness. This unruliness is life, social life, life in and as blackness. Rules and laws are utilized to order the unruliness of the “us,” of the blacks and queers and women and trans* people and and and. Rules and laws “invent” as pathological our already existent mode of sociality as in need of control. Hoes and sissies and nappy hair in need of perms, rhetorically rehearse a more fundamental and foundational aversion to queer things, a queer mode of living that sets loose the very concept of blackness, because in such a concept is resistance that testifies to the power and force of gathering in the name and cause of something greater than the individual self. The individual self is a biological entity, a body, that can be counted.
But we live in a moment wherein the interrogation of the so-called naturalness of biology is necessary, wherein the social construction of the category needs be made explicit. Biology has never been on the side of the marginalized because the categorical mode of thought emerged from the same racialist projects that produced simple assertions about the purported simplemindedness of black folks. Biology has been used to pathologize; to on the one hand say that we simply are beholden to more primal urges and are thus unable to rise to the level of culture, while on the other it is used to explain away and justify things racism, patriarchy, sexism, homo- and transphobia. Think, for example, of the simplistic assertion that “men are visual creatures” … in such an assertion is a capitulation to sexual violence, is an assent to the notion that being “visual” is what disallows male-identified persons from acting justly because libidinal drives force them to look and to react with knee jerks and gazes and inequitable displays of power. The visuality of men, accepted as a biological – and thus, unavoidable – fact is the same sorta ideology that set loose not just the idea of racial difference but a hierarchy that says those who do not register visually as white are in need of constant correction and control through coercion. Visuality is but one register of such coercion. It occurs, likewise, in terms of how folks sound, how folks smell and feel, how folks taste. Biology, and really all of that which is called “science,” is harnessed in the service of patriarchy and no amount of appeals to it will do much good.
Some of us have just celebrated, while others of us have lamented, Father’s Day in the United States. This day seems to bring out many emotions, and much of that emotive response is grounded in patriarchy and the purported need for a male-identified person to live “in the household” as proof positive of the proper development of children. It seems that a penis in the household becomes tantamount to a stabilizing presence, that the biologically male body serves as fortifying the unruliness and uncontrollability of the female flesh. The flesh of females, particularly and intensely the flesh of females that are likewise racialized black, register as that which is dangerous for biologically male and female children. We discovered this idea with Moynihan and his “report” that laid at the feet of black women the “tangle of pathology” of black social life. If a biological penis were in the household, then black social life would cohere with the wishes of the nation-state, reproducing the concept of the normative family, one that could be counted on to defend the nation, to be properly patriotic, to capitulate to the wishes of empire. The unruly biological black female mother has not the capacity within her to be a protector or provider, but merely functions as a presence of production. Black female flesh is proper for reproducing bodies for the furtherance of the goals of empire but certainly is not one that could provide something like stability in the lives of children. Such that black female flesh is constantly on display and desired for its capacities for production, though hypersexualized and discarded because of such hypersexualization.
So, many lamented the celebration of black women on Father’s Day, a day for folks with biological, and importantly not constructed, penises.
This card seems to have offended people because according to many, “only men can be a father.” But what does this statement, and the sentiment behind it, actually mean? How have we arrived at a categorical distinction of what a father is supposed to be or mean or do that is not always and everywhere constructed by the milieu in which we live currently? If a father is one that protects, provides, cares for and is concerned with the concept of the family, how is that not reflected by the category we call “mother”? What, in theory and actuality, delineates the difference between such gendered roles? It all comes back to biology, how biology is utilized to not only make a claim for absolute difference but is used to then pathologize those of them, those of us, that do not abide by such strictures. Few of us, of course, do, but the aspiration towards such abiding is something to which we should attend in our intensely, explicitly neoliberal world. Rather than celebrating the fact that folks want to celebrate the important people in their lives, black female flesh, black mothers, were castigated for attempting to “play the role of the father,” because biology set the parameters for what is and is not possible for that categorical distinction. Biological distinction is, in other words, fuckin all of us up.
Graduating and celebrating all sorts of academic accomplishments, Karlesha Thurman was called a “hoe” because of her public breastfeeding of her child during her graduation ceremony.
Because the set of assumptions about black female flesh as always unruly and out of order, sex and sexuality are always already moralized against. Many attempted to defend Karlesha – and rightfully so because folks that argued against her were simply silly – by saying that she was producing a biological act by breastfeeding, that what she was doing was grounded in science, not cultural practice nor a general cultural immorality. But such defenses only worked in the service of reifying the absolute difference and distinction between science on the one hand and culture on the other. Those defenses that turned to science – through biology – as the means that normalized her breastfeeding only ended up mining the very category of black female pathology in order to articulate why she, as individuated, should be given a pass.
But such should not be the case. Why do we allow dudes to walk around beaches and streets and clubs without shirts but not women? Is it because there is something inherently different in the chests of men and women biologically? Is it because folks want to protect women’s flesh from being subject to gratuitous violence and violation? Not so. Not at all. Women are subject to violence – sexual and otherwise – not because of the unruliness of their flesh but because of the cultural collusion with science that produces something like patriarchal, sexist renderings of culture. Folks talked shit about Karlesha Thurman because not even biology offers recourse, because blackness and female flesh exist outside the bounds of biology.
What is it about Karlesha Thurman’s “biological” condition that made her a “hoe”…? What is it that transforms something that is natural into something that is in need of being tamed, controlled, relaxed? It is the collusion of cultural with science that produces such a rendering of her feeding her child. And this collusion of science and culture needs much attention and interrogation.
What we discover with Karlesha, and more emphatically with Blue Ivy Carter, is that there are two kinds of naturalness and, as such, two kinds of biological explanations for how folks exist in the world: that which is natural but in need of control and that which needs to be tamed; and that which should be cultivated, protected, proliferated, congratulated. Blue Ivy Carter has been the subject of hella scrutiny because of her hair, naturally grown out of her head though it may be.
This particular photograph was such a problem that Blue Ivy became subject to a Change.org petition titled “Comb her hair”. The desire for her hair to be combed, to be otherwise than nappy – and both Crissle of The Read as well as Kimberly Foster at For Harriet have discussed this – is an affect of the naturalization of whiteness. But to move in their direction and further still, it is not just whiteness but the ways whiteness as biological is naturalized, how white bodies biologically are proper and that which falls beyond and aside the productions of white bodies are deemed problematic. Blue Ivy’s natural, biological hair is in need of taming, perming, combing, control. Her hair is not like other hair because, in effect, it is not white enough. Resorting to biological explanations for her hair simply won’t be enough because it is the unruliness of its blackness that is being interrogated, not any concept of so-called naturalness.
The unruliness of Blue Ivy’s hair, the unruliness of Karlesha Thurman’s breastfeeding, the unruliness of celebrating flesh that doesn’t have biological penises for Father’s Day: they all mine an already existent pathology of black social life as in need of control, particularly through acts of violence. And this is true not just for the flesh of women-identified folks but for men and boys as well. There is pathology that is assumed to be true for black social life and only then, after such pathology is established as axiomatic, do various modes of categorical thought come to “explain” the reasons for unruly, queer, off, problematic behavior. And it is the afterlife of presumably true black pathology that Barack Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper Initiative (MBKI) coheres and builds its capacity for supposed change.
MBIK is a program that seeks to help black and brown boys with self esteem, to give them mentorship, particularly by telling them they have “no excuses” and by telling their parents that they are the ones most implicated in the failings of their children. The initiative was created on the heels of George Zimmerman’s egregious acquittal and after the murder of Jordan Davis. Yet, instead of talking about structural and institutional racism, about the ways blackness is figured in the national imaginary as dangerous, as violent and as – yes – pathological, Obama chose rather an initiative that would set at the feet of the children so-attacked their issues in need of change. Obama ongoingly utilizes so-called black pathology as a means to identify with black American community: though his father was Kenyan and his mother white American, he uses the narrative of the absentee black father – one with much popular appeal, though not verifiable “scientifically” (funny how even science and math would disavow the very appeal he makes to it) – in order to identify with black American social life. But more than identify with it, he seeks to continually distance himself from such social life by declaring his success even though he purportedly shares conditions with the black folks he chides. Obama talks often with black folks about how his father was missing and how he smoked marijuana, and it is that lack and bad behavior supposedly gives him a foundation to talk about and to black folks in the States and their ongoing failings with respect to being impoverished, lacking education, having poor health and being constantly incarcerated.
Obama’s speech that inaugurated the MBKI intimated that he is exceptional because, unlike most black (and brown) boys, he had folks that cared about him and his well-being throughout the duration of his life. Such that his “bad behavior” did not impact him negatively in ways that it does others. This is not him speaking to privilege but him distancing himself from the black and brown boys that normatively do not have folks who love, care, nor respect them. Yet there have been folks organizing in the service of and love for black and brown kids for centuries, institutions from churches and mosques and schools to sororities and fraternities and social organizations.
The very foundation of the MBKI is founded upon a faulty idea that black and brown boys don’t feel care or concern from an early age. Yet research from educators like Janice Hale has demonstrated that black kids enter schoolsmore excited and ready to learn, achieve better and are more active than any other racial ethnic group, which is why Hale argues so much in favor of early childhood education. Black kids enter into schooling situations ready to learn even if, as Obama pointed out, they have a less extensive vocabulary than do white children at the same age. The problem is precisely that early on, black children feel the effects of institutional structural inequity: this happens through both microaggressive racialist practices and through more official means like testing and placing kids into remedial classes because they have “behavioral issues.” MBKI includes women through negation, through saying that the pathologies of black womanhood, of black motherhood, of black teaching women is simply not enough to control the behavior of black boys. What is needed is the controlling, stabilizing force of the black father, the black man.
However, the main problem with MBKI is not that it does not explicitly include women in its plan – it includes women through pathologizing mothering and teaching – but that the initiative itself is grounded in a general, nonspecific black pathology as axiomatic. It is grounded in the conceptual zone and frame that says blackness is unruliness and this unruliness must be controlled through varied forms of violent encounter with the nation-state. Sometimes, the violent encounter is with Stop-and-Frisk measures, with the increasing militarization of state police and general police and carceral practices. Other times, the violent encounter is with Race to the Top and its focus on “accountability” and “results” and “no excuses,” though schooling in general has been assaulted under the this current and previous administrations in the service of privateering profits. And at other times, the violent encounter is with initiatives that simply rehearse the language, logic and rubrics of neoliberal, individualist uplift narratives. MBKI is a science project, one that is founded upon the need to understand and, thus control, black pathology.
Like so many Blue Ivy strands of uncombed hair, like so many Karlesha Thurman breastfeedings, like so many sissies in sanctuaries, MBKI is a tactic of controlling the excesses of black social life. We should resist this with all of our being.
“These hoes ain’t loyal,” is but one sensationalist quotation from Jamal Harrison Bryant’s recent sermon titled, “I Am My Enemies (sic) Worst Nightmare.” In this sermon, he also decried the fact that the Black Church has created the condition wherein the only black men willing to abide there are “sanctified sissies.” He also discussed how there are “more lesbians” in the black community than ever before. This all because of the dissolution of the black family as a categorically distinct and pure zone, one that is relegated to father, mother and children. The failure for loyalty is felt everywhere and throughout the sermon: women aren’t loyal to men, gays aren’t loyal to holy libidinal drives, all to say that the failure of loyalty is a debt and personal moral failing, is an individualist infraction that is in need of reproving and adjustment. Bryant relies on the same supposed pathologies of unruly black sexualities that produced the conditions wherein Karlesha Thurman could be called a hoe: that something about her, about our, flesh is excessive to the point of danger for the whole of the community. It is the job of the excessive ones to regulate our behaviors for the salvation of the community. But this move for regulation and repression is to occur so we can fully, as a community, participate in the bounds of neoliberalism, not to disrupt and disfigure its function and form. Perhaps being disloyal to such aspirations is a gift. What worries Bryant, I think, is what worries Obama: the unruliness and uncontrolled nature of black sociality. Each participates, through various rhetorics and modalities, in the belief of an already believed, a priori black pathology that has to be both sought after and, after being found, destroyed.
And it is this search for the destroying of unruliness, of untamed hair and breasts and sexualites, that allows me to finally understand what Hortense Spillers means when she says that the black American male-identified person has the unique opportunity to “say ‘yes’ to the female within.” And must respond not to this opportunity, but to it as demand. What Bryant’s sermon demonstrates is a desire to tame the unruliness of queerness, the unruliness of female flesh, that is not grounded in the biological body but in the force of that which is deemed unruly, queer, excessive by the nation-state, by the inequitable distribution of power. Bryant wants to tame and perm and relax and control the aesthetics of the Black Church, of Blackpentecostalism, because in such aesthetic practice is the deformation of the very aspiration towards inclusion in national political initiatives that are only ever aspirations towards inclusion in neoliberal violence. Obama likewise wants to search for and destroy a similar unruliness. He participates in this search through Race to the Top measures, through initiatives that are supposed to “keep,” but that refuse to name emphatically systemic and instructional racism, sexism, homophobia, violence. They each tend towards the basic, pernicious ideology of blackness as offense, blackness as toxic and immoral.
What is needed is a general disbelief in the projects of empire, no matter how seductive the call for inclusion. A disbelief in the idea that what we are and already have is not enough. A disbelief in the pernicious and insidious ways pathologizing blackness operates in our moment. A disbelief in the capacity of empire to produce justice. A disbelief that nappy hair is bad, that breastfeeding in public insinuates acts of flagrant violence, that sissies in sanctuaries are not likewise vital for the quickening force of religious community. What is needed is a disbelief in the law of the father because the “law” is what establishes the very capacity to be a father, it normativizes certain relations as more important than others. But this has never been the truth for black folks, and I suspect others as well. Play aunties, play cousins, mom-moms, paw-paws, half-sisters, half-brothers, the people down the street and up the way: other socialities exist and cannot be reduced to or contained by the biologic necessity of blood. Biology restricts sociality and purports to be itself the grounds of culture. And it is this same law that incarcerates with racial and classed bias.
Yet, we can do and think and be otherwise. We can keep each other aside from, outside and beyond milquetoast federal initiatives. What is needed, in other words, is a disbelief in the current configuration of things that press both science and culture into the service of finding and critiquing blackness as deficit and detriment. This disbelief is the saying ‘yes’ to the radical force of black womanhood within.
Winds of 53mph crashed against the lakeshore of Chicago for five days by October 29, 1929. It was fateful and fatal, indeed, but not simply for Chicago residents. Wall Street also felt its own tumult October 29, 1929, the day marking Black Tuesday, the beginning of the Great Depression. Violent wind was blowing over and economically destabilizing the country and Chicago was hit hard. Imagine, then, the resolve necessary to organize a choir during that fateful period in the face of such economic and ecological tumult. The First Church of Deliverance’s choir, which would go on to international fame, held its first meeting that very day. Five years later, at 6:00am in 1934, First Church of Deliverance aired their first radio broadcast, becoming the second radio broadcast of a “colored” congregation in Chicago. And a few miles up the road in Evanston, Laurens Hammond was busily putting together the plans for a cheap organ that churches and novices could purchase. He and his lawyers walked the patent to the office themselves, him promising that – during the economically disastrous period – he was ready to put hundreds of people to work, manufacturing the instrument that would come to bear his name. The patent was approved that very day and they went to work.
In 1939, music director for the church Kenneth Morris conferred with Father Clarence Cobb in order to purchase one of those very new Hammond organs. “No church had had a Hammond organ prior to this, and people came from everywhere to hear First Church’s revolutionary new instrument.” Because of the radio broadcast that already garnered popular appeal by 1939, with the sounds of the Hammond organ, people came from far and wide to see what they experienced sonically: just what was this instrument with its, at times, “human-like” voice? “Cobb was able to attract to his congregation people from the ranks of the city’s black middle and even elite classes because of his flashy personal style and promises of prosperity, but it was the emotionally demonstrative worship of his live radio broadcasts that made him a ‘mass hero’ among Chicago’s poor and working class.”
But lest we think that it was only the sound of the Hammond and the demonstrative mode of worship that attracted visitors, “Former members of the First Church of Deliverance on Wabash Avenue remembered it as a major stop on the gay nightlife circuit in the 1930s and 1940s. The church welcomed gay people and Reverend Clarence Cobbs, along with many of his staff, was rumored to be gay” and “After attending the live broadcast at the church, which ran from 11:00 P.M. to midnight, club goers would simply walk from First Church of Deliverance to one of the area nightspots, usually the Kitty Kat Club, the Parkside, or the 430.” Eventually, the convergence of sound, subjectivity and sexuality as a force of Blackpentecostalism would become a contentious, contestable debate. But even as late as 1971, Anthony Heilbut wrote about how it was generally noted and accepted that, “most immediately striking about many of the larger Holiness churches is the inordinate number of male and female homosexuals. As one singer bluntly put it, ‘There’s more sissies and bull daggers in the Sanctified churches, and they all think they’re the only ones going to Heaven.’” and Heilbut otherwise noted that “the Holiness church maintains a discrete and at times impenetrable mystique. It may be the blackest of institutions…” The proliferation of the sound of the B-3 in Blackpentecostal spaces emerged from a queer sociality, from underground and otherworldly friendships and erotic relationships. Were musicians visiting the church before going to the Kitty Kat down the street, then telling their pastors about this object and the way it moved congregants?
Organ and Organization In my first manuscript, almost completed, titled Blackpentecostal Breath: The Aesthetics of Possibility, I consider categorical distinctions and how these distinctions are the grounds for racism, sexism, homo and transphobia, classism and the like. I do this by considering the categories of theology and philosophy to ask: what counts, and who decides what counts, as a theological and/or philosophical thought? I look at Blackpentecostalism, the aesthetic practices of, for example, speaking in tongues and whooping during preached moments, to urge against these categorical distinctions. The theologian and philosopher grounds their identity in the capacity to produce categorically distinct modes of thought as theological, as philosophical. And what then obtains as theological thought, as philosophical thought, is decided by the would be theologian, the would be philosopher. This seems patently normative and problematic. Blackpentecostal aesthetics, I argue, are against such distinctions grounded in the identity of the one making such a claim for thought.
This paper is the beginning of a second project that will be about the place of the Hammond B-3 organ in black religiosities, in black social life, and is built upon the first. I consider the question: what does it mean to be black, to exist in blackness, when the categorical distinction as an imperative modality of thought itself has been interrogated? To do this, I investigate the Hammond B-3 organ and its ubiquity in modern charismatic, evangelical Christian tradition. It is used in storefront churches in impoverished inner cities and in new, modern megachurches. The Hammond B-3 can be found in churches across the United States, in various countries in Africa, in England. It is a sound that has, in other words, spread. My goal is to think about why this has happened.
The Hammond B-3 organ has been taken up in Blackpentecostal spaces as the instrument, as the sound, of the movement. The Hammond B-3 organ’s sound is an instance of BlackQueer sonic presencing and enacts the politics of avoidance when the musician and instrument come together, sounding out in the space of congregations. The Hammond instrument is known as a “tonewheel organ” and tone wheels are “a system of spinning, steel, silver-dollar-sized” discs with “notched edges,” resulting in “output [that] is more alive [and] organic…than what electronic organs can produce.” Though the Hammond instruments have sound presets that change the timbre and quality of the organ sound, there are also drawbars that allow musicians to instantly change and control sound quality. Drawbar settings affect the loudness, the tones, the percussiveness of the instrument. “By pulling or pushing their drawbars, you could instantly sculpt your sound. If you want more high harmonics, just tug on the upper drawbars. To deemphasize the fundamental, shove in the white drawbars” (35). But the manufacturer warned against pulling out all the drawbars as a setting musicians should never use. However, in much Blackpentecostal performance with the B-3, particularly during moments of intense emotionality in church services, musicians often use that very setting, pulling out all the stops, so to speak, in order to be as voluminous as possible. Though Laurens Hammond had specific desires for the decorous use of the instrument, Blackpentecostal aesthetics not only obscured but popularized the unwanted. Drawbars “offer real-time control of the sound” and that real-time is generative for reconceptualizing temporality and spatiality.
To amplify the B-3 model, an external speaker cabinet has to be utilized. Though the Hammond Organ Company manufactured their own model, it was Don Leslie and the Leslie Company that had the best “fit” for the sound the Hammond attempted to produce. “The most popular Leslie speaker cabinet contains a high-frequency horn driver and a bass woofer, both of which are combined with rotating components. […] The rotary components can rotate at high and low speeds, which adjustable ramp-up and –down times” (12). At the level of the machine itself, there is a necessarily sociality: for the machine to be heard, it necessitates some outside object to make the chord changes and progressions audible.
Most fundamentally, the Hammond instrument differs from pipe organs because “the pipes themselves are spread out across a fairly wide range when constructed” (13). Pipe organs, in other words, are fashioned by the amount of room they require from any given space. For this reason, there are no pipe organs in domestic spaces; one would need cathedral-like space for such an instrument. In contradistinction, the Hammond organ was able to be compact and, in a way, portable (at 400 or so pounds), such that the achievement of the Hammond organ with the attendant Leslie speaker, we might say, is spatiotemporal compression, about which more soon. As a substitute for the pipe organ – because of the drawbars, the Leslie speaker cabinet and the touch-to-response ratio – the Hammond’s “fast attack” made it a poor substitute (14) but this failure, as its quick response to touch, would be its crowning achievement, making it perfect for the intense and quick “movement of the Spirit” in Blackpentecostal spaces. In the following clip, you will hear the changes in volume, quality of sound and the varied speeds of the Leslie speaker.
The sound of the Hammond organ, particularly the B-3 model, would come to be the sound of Blackpentecostalism particularly and how the Black Church as an institution with historical force is imagined.
Described as sounding human, the Hammond organ offers a way to think about the breakdown between human and machines. In a Testimony given at Rev. F.W. McGee’s Blackpentecostal church, January 28, 1930, one brother asks the saints to pray, “that I may be used as an instrument in his hand.” This desire for instrumentality, I argue, structures the Blackpentecostal imagination such that any object can be sacrelized, made holy. People not only beat tambourines and stomp feet, but play washboards with spoons and blow whistles. The Hammond organ is in this tradition, the utilization of any object for sacred possibility. And in such making sacred of objects, the instrument is not the Hammond on the one hand or the musician on the other: the instrument is the sociality of the Spirit Filled musician with the musical object working together. This sociality of instrumentality is a respiratory performance. Listen as it breathes. The Hammond organ breathes on multiple levels: at the level of the musical object, the Leslie speaker gathers up and displaces the air within space in order for the object to be audible; it literally inhales and exhales air; it is, in other words, a breathing machine. The changes in speed of the Leslie speaker make such mechanical respiration audible; listen closely and you can hear the chop-chop-chop smooth out and speed up again. And on the level of the human and machine breathing together, what is it to be Spirit Filled? It is to be filled with breath, filled with air, filled with wind.
Given its prominence in the sound culture of America – heard not only in churches but in Rock and Roll, Rhythm and Blues, Jazz, Funk, Soul – given its ubiquity, given the debates about authenticity and sound musicians have about the instrument, given the language used to describe its sounds, it is not merely odd that there is nothing written about this mechanical device’s relation to Black religiosity. The omission seems to be audibly deafening, an aversive modality of thought that is the grounds for theology and philosophy. The aversion to discussing the instrument may perhaps be linked to its queer historicity within Black Christian traditions. The proliferation of the sound of the Hammond B-3 in Blackpentecostal spaces emerged from a queer sociality, from underground and otherworldly friendships and erotic relationships. Rumors and gossip about the queerness of musicians of these particular instruments within the space of the church abounds. There is, within this religiocultural space, a thinking together of the concepts of sound and sexuality.
Musician and critic Salim Washington offers that one way to think about sound in the Blackpentecostal tradition is as a technology: “Music in the Holiness churches can be used simply as a transformation of the mood and/or mind-set of the participants, but in the case of the ‘shout,’ music is used as a technology, through which a direct cause and effect takes place.” Technologies can be used as outlined in user manuals or can be used otherwise to create new moods, new meanings, with the same apparatus. The sound of the B-3 is ever present, and with the musician, complicates the generally accepted notion that Pentecostals are simply loud. The virtuosity of the musician allows us to overhear the ways the space is dynamic, that there are moments of quietude and others of cacophony, but always intense. The seeming omnipresence of the sound of the B-3 during church services, then, draws attention to what Avery Gordon calls the “seething presence” of all matters ghostly, the force of “the seemingly not there” that is perceptible, that is felt, that animates and is the foundation for movement, for behavior, for life and love. The seemingly there and not there, faith as the substance of hope and as the evidence of things not seen – so the biblical book of Hebrews says – is on the edge. We wait and anticipate that something will happen, some mode of relationality enacted, some music played. I listen, I incline my ear towards the sounding and sounding out – from the first note to the last chord – of the B-3, “setting the atmosphere” for a particular kind of knowing, a certain modality for experiencing the world.
Victor Zuckerkandl is correct, I think, when he says, “We are always between the tones, on the way from tone to tone; our hearing does not remain with the tone, it reaches through it and beyond it” (137). Attention to Blackpentecostal uses of the B-3 moves us further still by stopping short of Zuckerkandl: what if tones weren’t reaching for resolution or completion but were perpetually, ongoingly, open? Whereas Zuckerkandl believes that notes resolve to completion, I argue that Blackpentecostal engagements with the Hammond B-3 make evident what I call the centrifugitivity of black social life. What we have, in other words, are tones that are not simply moving toward resolution but are on the way to varied directionality – not simply in a linear, forward progression but also vertically, down and up, askance and askew. What if, as open to openness, the sounds of the B-3 prompt in its hearers an intellectual practice of a reaching toward the beyond? Would not this reaching, this movement toward without ever seizing the beyond, instantiate ongoing anticipatory posture, an affective mode of celebratory waiting?
What is inherent to the sound of the mechanical object – throwing around its organic quality, converging with and putting to question the relation between the human and the machine – is the conception of Being as irreducibly, anoriginally anticipatory. As a concern about being, about existence, the B-3’s sonic thrownness – through the centripetal and centrifugal spins of tone wheels and drum speakers – whether reaching toward the high ceilings and spacious layout of formerly Jewish synagogues in neighborhoods like Newark, Detroit and Brooklyn or in the tight quarters and suffocating walls of storefront churches like those in which Helga Crane in Quicksand hearing congregants sing “Showers of Blessings” or John, Elizabeth and Gabriel in Go Tell It on the Mountain find themselves, allow us to reconsider the concept of origin. In James Weldon Johnson’s The Books of Negro Spirituals, Johnson outlines the ways in which the authorship of Spirituals was constantly queried: just who came up with such musical genius; who authored such songs? Implicit in such a question about authorship is the concern about ownership that is grounded in the textual, in a worldview wherein reading is coeval to literacy, and textual-grammatical literacy is the privileged mode of thought and communication. This question of authorship, in other words, emerged in the same world that touted reading as the privileged practice toward freedom. Thus, when Spirituals could be transcribed and written are the moments when concerns of authorship emerged as a concern with urgent force. But what at times is called “soft chording,” “padding,” “talk music” or – most intriguingly for me here – “nothing music” dislodges notions of authorship and genius as individuating and productive of enlightened, bourgeois, liberal subjectivity from the capacity to create, to carry, to converge, to conceal. The music in this clip will demonstrate “nothing” to which I attend.
Nothing music is the connective tissue, the backgrounded sound, of Blackpentecostal church services heard before and after songs, while people are giving weekly announcements, before the preacher “tunes up” and after the service ends. Ask a musician, “what are you playing,” and – with a coy, shy smile – they’ll say, “nothing.” These are examples of what Samuel Delany says about the word: “The word generates no significant information until it is put in formal relation with something else.” Delany argues that with the introduction of each new word in a sentence, it acts as a modifier of everything that came before; such that meaning is emergent, meaning is of and toward the horizon. Meaning is made through relationality such that what Delany says about words in a sentence is consistent with what Zuckerkandl contends about tones in a sonic statement: to make meaning is to be in-between, in the interstice. But more, meaning is made through the inclined ear, through the anticipation of the more to come that has not yet arrived; this more to come is ever in relation to that which is now and that which has passed “into the ago” (perhapsHeidegger would say). And we hear this in the musician’s virtuosity: he upholds, he carries, he anticipates, through the performance of “nothing” – it is not a song, it is not a melody; we might call it improvisation, though that implies a structure upon which he is building; it’s not like rhythm changes – the difference between “I Got Rhythm” and “Flintstones…meet the Flintstones”: perhaps we can call it playing. I think the difference – musically – between playing “nothing” and improvisation, jamming or noodling is that perhaps with the playing of “nothing music,” there is a certain lack of attention, a sort of insouciance with which one plays, a holy nonchalance: being both fully engaged in the moment while concentration is otherwise than the music, a nonchalance that is part of, while setting, the mood of the service. Playing as a performance of conviction that is not reduced to the serious, decorous or pursuit of perfection. Playing is to anticipate change.
In this playing of “nothing,” it is not that nothing is played, that nothing is heard, it is that what appears is the sound of the gift of unconcealment. Heidegger’s understanding of Being and Time, perhaps through the theorizing of a gift, is animated by a Blackpentecostal anticipation of a sonic sociality. Anticipation is a sort of Heideggerian gifting that always retains – in its enactment – its force of foresight, foreboding. Heidegger says, “the gift of unconcealing…is retained in the giving.” Musicians unconceal – and uncompress – the play and the playing of nothing but retain, in the very playing out, the nothing from which the sounding out emanates. And when the drawbars are fully extended, perhaps we have a moment of “uncompression,” of de-compression. What one hears, what one anticipates, with each new chord and arpeggio is the movement toward the next chord and arpeggio, one hears the meaning of “I ain’t got long to stay here,” what it means, in other words, to “steal away.” This is centrifugitive performance, criminal displacement of the concepts of genius and scholar because what these musicians play – and what we hear – they, and we, do not know though we certainly feel it, feel it pulling and tugging on us, at us, feel it attempting to move us toward some other mode of relationality.
Toni Morrison has written about playing in the dark, how there is an Africanist presence in American literature; and Judith Butler began her discussion of gender performativity in Gender Trouble by bespeaking how kids play and in such playing get in trouble: So what is the relationship of play to presence, of play to performativity, that the organist, that the organ itself, furnishes forward for our consideration? To uphold, to carry, and to anticipate and move. These musicians organize sound in space in such a way as to produce three-dimensionality. Aden Evens would, I think, agree:
[E]very sound interacts with all the vibrations already present in the surrounding space; the sound, the total timbre of an instrument is never just that instrument, but that instrument in concert with all the other vibrations in the room, other instruments, the creaking of chairs, even the constant, barely perceptible motion of the air.
They are playing the air, gettin down with the handclaps, gettin into trouble with the talking preacher, they gather the varied vibrations and channel them out through the sound of the B-3. But the thing they play, the thing with which they move congregants, is nothing at all. The musicians construct a narrative about and from nothing, through the available air compression and changes in the environment. No tone is excess, no harmony too egregious; each allows for discovery. If the presence that figures itself as “nothing” has the ability to move, to undergird, what does this mean about the ontological status of the claim for being, for coming from, nothing? Perhaps lacking spatial and temporal coherence is a gift. It is to anticipate that there is, even in nothing, a multitude, a plentitude, a social world of exploration.
“[T]o hear a pitch that does not change is to hear as constant something that is nothing but change, up-and-down motion. To hear is to hear difference.” If what one hears is difference itself, then what one anticipates is the means through which difference shows itself, the routes through which difference announces itself, not as a moment for denigration but as a showing, as an appearance, worthy of celebration, praise. And this difference that is felt, that is heard, through anticipation, calls forth a sociality. Thus, the sound of the B-3 participates in a relationship with the other sounds in the space, that the musician enacts – along with the architectonics, the noise and murmuring, the conversations and glossolalia, the foot stomps and vocable expirations – and this participation is the horizon-al emergence for, and the grounds of, queer relationality, Foucault’s friendship as a way of life, an inventional A thru Z mode of coming together in new, uncapturable, anti-institutional configurations with each sounded out chord. What is desired from the playing of chords, I think, is to have the congregants scream in ecstasy, to yelp in pleasure, because of the anticipated but unexpected, anticipation as surprise and astonishment. What the sound of the B-3 us hear, then, is that Blackpentecostal aesthetics, black pneuma, the politics of avoidance, are all illustrative of the anoriginal density, un-compressed compression, that is fundamental to any creative practice, any form of life.
Centrifugitivity In her book Saints in Exile: The Holiness-Pentecostal Experience in African American Religion and Culture, Cheryl Sanders theorizes that the “saints” can be understood by way of the motif of an exilic community, those forever searching for home after having been pushed out, those who – by way of force – have been separated from the thing with which they desire most: grounding. The utility of exile as a motif for considering the relationship of Holiness-Pentecostal religious life to mainline African American religious organizations such as the National Baptist Convention and the African Methodist Episcopal church is understandable: during the “birth” of the modern Pentecostal movement at the turn of the twentieth century, individuals were banished from families for joining the “holy rollers,” shunned by friends and lampooned in the media for glossolalia, those strange utterances that are not given to coherent rational thought.
And in nineteenth century New Orleans, there were the ciprieré communities – maroons of Africans and American Indigenes who escaped conditions of enslavement, existing in the cypress swamps. The ciprieré communities were secreted from local plantations, maintaining a relationship to those spaces from which they escaped, but established new patterns of behavior and aesthetic interventions for protection and peace. I consider Blackpentecostalism not to be exilic but marooned like so many secreted folks in swamplands. Timothy James Lockley argues about maroon communes that “The Spanish first had to find the maroon communities, and since[they] were usually secreted away in remote and inaccessible areas this was not easy. The Native Americans present among the maroons provided vital local knowledge as to the best locations for settlements that were both defensible and had ready supplies of fresh water.” Maroons, in other words, secreted into the external world against the plantation world; they secreted out of the internal world and logics of racial capital. This movement of and towards the swamp was a release and letting out into, interrogating notions of directionality. The ciprieré communities secreted from local plantations, maintaining a relationship to those spaces from which they escaped, but established new patterns of behavior and aesthetic interventions for protection and peace. Setting traps, navigating the waters, having sex, singing, raising children, eating – all these were aesthetic practices that were likewise practices of preparation. Maroons needed be ready at a moment’s notice for encounter, not with the divine, but with the world of the normative otherwise that would bear down on them and produce violence against them. Each practice, therefore, was a preparation for the possibility of the threat of violation; each practice, thus, highlights the ways in which interventions always have an aesthetic quality and theoretical underpinning.
Centripetal and centrifugal movements at one and the same time, the secretion of aesthetic modes of existence as preparation for battle is centrifugitivity.The sound of the Hammond B-3 is centrifugal, dispersing its force throughout the congregation within its particular space in time. But the sound is centripetal, gathering up the resources of the congregation, gathering them together in moments of praise and quietude. This obliteration of the distinction of push and pull, of fugal and petal is, however, always towards and away from centeredness. This dissolution of the distinction, of the categorical distinction, is the centrifugitivity of blackness, of black sound. The sound of the Hammond B-3 both pushes while it likewise pulls, ebbs while it flows. A rejection of linearity, a movement in varied directions coterminously, the music of the Hammond B-3, enacted by Blackpentecostal musicianship, is inventional, it manifests the ongoing openness that seeks to create other modes of relationality.
 W. K. McNeil, Encyclopedia of American Gospel Music (New York: Routledge,, 2005), 264.
 Wallace D. (Wallace Denino) Best, Passionately Human, No Less Divine: Religion and Culture in Black Chicago, 1915-1952 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press,, n.d.), 115.
 Ibid., 188.
 Anthony Heilbut, The Gospel Sound: Good News and Bad Times – 25th Anniversary Edition, Anniversary (Limelight Editions, 1997), 183, 173.
 Mark Vail, The Hammond Organ: Beauty in the B, 2nd ed. (San Francisco: Backbeat Books ;, 2002), 10.
 Salim Washinton, “The Avenging Angel of Creation/Destruction: Black Music and the Afro-Technological in the Science Fiction of Henry Dumas and Samuel R. Delany,” Journal of the Society for American Music 2, no. 02 (2008): 239.
 Avery Gordon, Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press,, 1997), 195.
 James Weldon Johnson et al., The Books of American Negro Spirituals [printed Music]: Including The Book of American Negro Spirituals and The Second Book of Negro Spirituals (New York: Da Capo Press,, 1969).
 Samuel R. Delany, “About 5,750 Words,” in The Jewel-Hinged Jaw: Notes on the Language of Science Fiction, Rev. ed. (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press,, 2009), 2.
 Martin Heidegger, On Time and Being. (New York, Harper & Row , n.d.), 6, 7.
 Toni. Morrison, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, William E. Massey, Sr. Lectures in the History of American Civilization ; 1990. (Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press, 1992., n.d.).
 Judith. Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York : Routledge, c1999., n.d.).
 Aden. Evens, Sound Ideas: Music, Machines, and Experience, Theory out of Bounds ; v. 27. (Minneapolis : University of Minnesota Press, c2005., n.d.), 6.
 Ibid., 1.
 Michel Foucault, Robert Hurley, and Paul Rabinow, “Friendship as a Way of Life,” in Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth (New York: New Press,, 1997).
 Timothy James Lockley, Maroon Communities in South Carolina: A Documentary Record (Columbia, S.C. : University of South Carolina Press, c2009., n.d.), iii.
Having been said to be nothing, this is a love letter written to we who have been, and are today still, said to have nothing. And to a tradition of such nothingness. This is a love letter to a love tradition, a tradition which emerges from within, carries and promises nothingness as the centrifugal, centripetal, centrifugitive force released against, and thus is a critical intervention into, the known world, the perniciously fictive worlds of our making. Some might call this fictive world “real.” Some might call this fictive world reality. Some might call this fictive world the project of western civilization, complete with its brutally violent capacity for rapacious captivity. This is a love letter to a tradition of the ever overflowing, excessive nothingness that protects itself, that with the breaking of families, of flesh, makes known and felt, the refusal of being destroyed. There is something in such nothingness that is not, but still ever excessively was, is and is yet to come. This is a love letter written against notions of ascendancy, written in favor of the social rather than modern liberal subject’s development. What emerges from the zone of nothingness, from the calculus of the discarded? If something makes itself felt, known, from the zone of those of us said to be and have nothing, then the interrogation of what nothingness means is our urgent task.
If you had been standing on the white sands of this island (Sapelo Island, GA) at dayclean in 1803, or a little later, you might have seen a tall, dark-skinned man with narrow features, his head covered with a cap resembling a Turkish fez, unfold his prayer mat, kneel and pray to the east while the sun rose. This was Bilali, the most famous and powerful of all the Africans who lived on this island during slavery days, and the first of my ancestors I can name.[i]
Born approximately 1760 in Timbo, Futa Jallon, Bilali was stolen into laborious conditions as a teenager and taken to Middle Caicos before being sold to Thomas Spalding of Sapelo Island in 1802. A collection of writings, known as Ben Ali’s Diary, was at least partially written by Bilali in Arabic script.[ii] Bilali’s writing is meditative speech and script, a mode of enfleshment on the page in both easily accessible and incoherent markings. A thirteen-page manuscript – five of which cannot be translated to any linguistic rhetoric or grammar, thus remaining opaque and impenetrable for any reader – written in the nineteenth century, it was given to Francis Goulding in 1859. Though discussed under the rubric of “autobiography,” the document contains no formal identifying information about its author, is not a collection of dates and life occurrences, does not have in it information about ancestry or progeny. It contains what I call a “choreosonic itinerary and protocol” for prayer and ablution, for praise to Allah. “Choreosonic” is a portmanteau underscoring the fact that choreography and sonicity, movement and sound, are inextricably linked and have to be thought together. As such, the choreosonic itinerary and protocol is a series of placements and arrangements for how blackness, life from within the zone of nothingness, through performance resisted the theological-philosophical modes of thought that created the concept of racial difference.
Bilali’s writing begins with the opening benediction: “In the name of Allah, The Most Merciful The Most beneficent. Allah’s blessings upon our lord Muhammad, and upon his family and companions, blessings and salutations.”[iii] It includes: “Using both the right and left hands, one puts water into the mouth at least three times, and puts water into one’s nose three times [cleaning it]. One washes one’s face three times [7:1-11], then wipes the right hand up to the [elbow] joint [k`abain], and the left hand up to the [elbow] joint [k`abain].”[iv] And it includes the Adhan, the call to prayer, “Allah is Great, Allah is Great. I bear witness that [a’an] there is no god but Allah, I bear witness that [a’an] there is no god but Allah [9:1-14]…Come to prayer [hi ‘al salah], come to prayer [salah].”[v]
What has befuddled translators is the near five pages which do not translate into any linguistic content coherent for readers at all that is at the heart – in the middle – of the document. Indeterminacy is at the heart of the textual matter for thought, forcing scholars to ask: is the incoherent script the rehearsal of one who had not fully learned Arabic; is the script attempting to sound like what it looks like? More fundamentally, an ever unasked series of connected questions: what is this text? What is this nothingness at the core, at the heart, of the writing event’s performance? What is the mode of existence, the beingness, of one who would write such incoherences, such indeterminacies? Having been translatable text, why a breakdown in the middle? Why such nothingness at the interior of worship’s itinerary and protocol?
Nothingness has at its core, meditation and celebration, often misunderstood because of its refusal to give itself over to rationalist projects of cognition and thought. The five pages of nonempty, non-readable script speaks back against, and is, resistance prior to the articulation and enunciation of power. Bilali’s script speaks against, in other words, the general conception of nothingness as pure emptiness and purely simple. Bilali’s graphemic markings serve to break down the distinction between script and speech, between talk and text, and is a preface, a prelude, a prolegomenon to the music, the sound, of nothingness. In a word, the nothingness of such script is anything but empty; it is, rather, full. Overflowing. Bilali’s writing is mystical in its unsaying: something is both given and withheld with incomprehensible script.
What does the interior of the chalk look like? Let us see. We break it into two pieces. Are we now at the interior? Exactly as before we are again outside. Nothing has changed. The pieces of chalk are smaller, but bigger or smaller does not matter now … The moment we wanted to open the chalk by breaking it, to grasp the interior, it had enclosed itself again. … In any case, such breaking up never yields anything but what was already here, from which it started.[vi]
Similar to what Martin Heidegger describes about the piece of chalk, Bilali’s script breaks grammar, the word itself, but holds within each broken fragment, each severed piece of flesh through brutal violence, something of the sociality that made the script possible, the conditions and zones of emergence and horizon. Broken and laid bare is the concept of the bourgeois individual of enlightenment, the one who writes oneself into being through autobiographesis, through scripting histories in diaries.The breaking makes intensely and intentionally evident the withholding of the centrifugitive force of black sociality. Having been, am, having been, will be.
III This is a love letter to a tradition of those whom have been called, those who are still called, nothing. This is a love letter to those whom are thought to have nothing and, in such not having, have nothing to give. In another register and key, those whom are called nothing have also been called niggers. I quote at length. Apologies.
LET ME TELL YOU SOMETHING ABOUT NIGGERS, the oppressed minority within our minority. Always down. Always out. Always complaining that they can’t catch a break. Notoriously poor about doing for themselves. Constantly in need of a leader but unable to follow in any direction that’s navigated by hard work, self-reliance. And though they spliff and drink and procreate their way onto welfare doles and WIC lines, niggers will tell you their state of being is no fault of their own…
So I say this: It’s time for ascended blacks to wish niggers good luck. Just as whites may be concerned with the good of all citizens but don’t travel their days worrying specifically about the well-being of hillbillies from Appalachia, we need to send niggers on their way. We need to start extolling the most virtuous of ourselves. It is time to celebrate the New Black Americans—those who have sealed the Deal, who aren’t beholden to liberal indulgence any more than they are to the disdain of the hard Right. It is time to praise blacks who are merely undeniable in their individuality and exemplary in their levels of achievement.[vii]
In the screenplay for 12 Years a Slave, the character Clemons Ray conspires with Solomon Northup and another character to overthrow of the slaver boat saying, “the rest here are niggers, born and bred slaves. Niggers ain’t got no stomach for a fight, not a damn one.”[viii] Curious, the consistency between the statement in the film 12 Years a Slave and the rhetoric about the general incapacities for niggers in the former quote. Both were, curiously enough, written by John Ridley. The former statement about ascendancy was scripted in 2006, the latter, of course, in 2013. It is not that Northup’s narrative doesn’t think about peoples enslaved from birth as belonging to a particular kind of category. Indeed, Northup wrote, “There was not another slave we dared to trust. Brought up in fear and ignorance as they are, it can scarcely be conceived how servilely they will cringe before a white man’s look. It was not safe to deposit so bold a secret with any of them, and finally we three resolved to take upon ourselves alone the fearful responsibility of the attempt.”[ix] Whereas Northup seemed to ground his concern about not trusting others with a general desire to protect those others from possible harm – why else would he describe the attempt as a “fearful responsibility”? – Ridley transforms the scene utilizing language explicitly anti-social, explicitly making a categorical distinction that is supposedly ontological. They have, on the boat, alienated themselves, have already ascended. They are, on the boat already, New Black Americans.
Ridley is interested in the “state of being” for those he calls nigger, for those whom we might think of as nothing. This state of being, this mode of existence is about the necessity to escape the social, the necessity to articulate oneself as individual against the social world. Ridley transforms the narrative into one wherein Northup must ascend from, escape the conditions of, remain unscathed by, the black social world, the world of niggers, the zone of nothingness. Such that the film merely represses any modality of sociality in the service of producing the individual. Such that any singing and dancing is labor for the master class. The world so construed, Northup’s fiddling and eventual singing of “Roll, Jordan, Roll” becomes a moment of defeat as he has, finally, descended fully into the dregs of the social world of the enslaved, descended fully into nothingness.
Having been born a freeman, and for more than thirty years enjoyed the blessings of liberty in a free State – and having at the end of that time been kidnapped and sold into Slavery, where I remained, until happily rescued in the month of January, 1853, after a bondage of twelve years – it has been suggested that an account of my life and fortunes would not be uninteresting to the public.[x]
Northup begins his narrative, first published in 1854, with the words “Having been…” How can we understand something about Northup’s having and, further, having been? What is presupposed with such a formulation? What is presupposed about being, about existence, about existence in black, about presupposition itself? Having been has within it the idea that there is something there, that something was there before the inaugural moment of its declaration. We can consider having been the perfect gerund and the subject of the sentence. Having is the present participle; been is the past participle. So though we can think of it as the perfect gerund, I want to consider the declaration which sets loose the narrative as the convergence of present and past, as a convergence which undoes notions of linear, progressive space and time.
Having been announces – through unsaying, through the nothingness of such non-speech – the otherwise, that which takes the form of the interrogative: What of the now? What of the soon to come? In the having been is the capacity for manifold temporality, an arhythmic modality of temporal measure against the line of Newtonian’s smooth transition from past to present to future, from here to there. The having been produces, perhaps W.E.B. Du Bois might say, the unasked question of being, of the being of blackness as manifold and, as always, interrogative, anticipatory, antagonistic. Anticipatory insofar as the having been anticipates a set of questions that are unasked, unvoiced, backgrounded, questions that are nothing but are still there, unasked and unvoiced in their fullness. Having been, what are you? Having been, what will you be?
Bilali’s writing includes “a collection of divergent glossia in which none is ostensibly placed as authoritative”[xi]; maybe we can think about the noise, that which was discarded, as the sonic substance, the speechifying of nothingness, the nothingness of glossolalia. Bilali’s incoherent script that frustrates serves a general purpose for understanding how it is Ridley and McQueen read Northup’s narrative and discarded the various modalities of sociality Northup recalled with devastating precision. Where was the friendship between Eliza and Rose? Where was the friendship between Northup and the Chicopees people, wherein he returned to the woods often to eat, talk and dance with them, not as a mere spectator but as participant? Where were the children for whom Northup played the violin as he traveled from plantation to plantation, given he had extra time? Where were the amusements? I contend that, if one has a political aspiration for exceptionalism, individualism and ascendancy in mind, that such sociality registers as nothing at all, as pure nothingness, abject in its horror. Why does McQueen describe Northup’s narrative as a Brothers Grimm fairy tale that ends “happy ever after”; why does he describe Patsey, several times over and again, as “simple”?[xii] If Patsey was indeed simple, her fashioning of dolls from corn husks was not evidence of her thriving in the face of brutal horrors, it was evidence of her simply not knowing how bad things were, her not cognizing the gravity of the environment in which she existed. This, of course to me at least, is erroneous.
If Bilali’s script serves as a method for thinking the nothingness of blackness, perhaps we can understand the incomprehensible text as ecstatic, as enthusiastic, as intensely and intentionally a breakdown with grammar, an intensely and intentionally celebratory mood or reflection. My colleague Jonathan Adams calls it, like the church folks I know, “joy unspeakable,” wherein what it means to be unspeakable issues forth from the performance of, the inhabitation of, happiness that is against reason and rationality.
Michael Sells, in Mystical Languages of Unsaying, says:
Every act of unsaying demands or presupposes a previous saying. Apophasis can reach a point of intensity such that no single proposition concerning the transcendent can stand on its own. Any saying (even a negative saying) demands a correcting proposition, an unsaying. But that correcting proposition which unsays the previous position is in itself a “saying” that must be “unsaid” in turn.[xiii]
But what we discover through Bilali’s script, in the incomprehensible blackness, the incomprehensible celebratory nothingness of the script, is the fact that one can say without saying, one can give while withholding as a matter, as the scripted, etched, written materiality, of praise. To write that which bodies forth as incomprehensible is to write non-readability into the text, to write the necessity to think a different relation to objects, objects that are supposed to be easily captured as flesh on mediums, bateaus and skiffs. To write the unasked question of being into the text by making markings that do not appear to readers as readable, Bilali’s document writes onto the page the question of being: what is this? And what of the one who scripted such irreducible incomprehension?
Such that what is written in the incomprehensible text, in the nothingness of the sign, is the confrontation with the problem of the idea that text writes experience, that experience is easily turned into filmic scene, that cinematography captures precisely because what is being captured is an experience of nothingness, of objects who have nothing, objects who – like so many Patseys – are merely simple. The celebratory, loving mode of sociality Northup recalls in his text, indeed and again, is unspeakable. His text is a love letter to those described as nothing, those existing within the zone of nothingness. It is a love letter that is celebratory of a mode of sociality that is given in its unspokenness. This is to say the love and celebration, against representations of violence as a totalizing force, is not given to rationalist representation when such rationalism is grounded in individual exceptionalism. Having been subjected to the totalizing force violence, yet joy.
Performance artist Alvin Lucier in his 1969 performance piece titled “I Am Sitting in a Room” shows the resonance of an empty room, the resonance of nothingness, making audible how that which is deemed nothing has material vibratory force.
The material vibratory force is nothing’s ethical injunction, its ethical demand on the world that would have such richness, such complexity, discarded. There is a structural, irreducible, inexhaustible incoherence at the heart of Northup beginning his narrative with the words having been, generative for disrupting logics of liberal subjectivity grounded in forward progression across space and time. The narrative begins with this incoherence, an incoherence not unlike the disruption into other epistemologies of time, space, the sacred and secular, the theologic and philosophic that came to be the displacement of flesh from land in the service of new world state juridical projects. Having been is the vibratory force of the ethical injunction that is not ever only about what Northup’s life was and could be but about everyone who was displaced through brutal violence into the system of enslavement. If there is a universalizing impulse, in other words, it is in that all can make a declaration of irreducible incoherence: having been, am, having been will be.
Bilali’s text, inclusive of the unreadable five pages, also importantly presupposes a deity that can understand incoherence. But perhaps not simply a deity but – because the text is a set of itineraries and protocols for worship – a community gathered by such incoherence as a mode of worship itself. It presupposes audience that would not deem the writing as incoherent, troubling the assumptive nature of declaring of objects what they do not themselves declare. The text resonates, it vibrates, it is both centripetal and centrifugal. The text is centrifugitive, moving in multiple directions at once, gathering and dispersing, through meditation, affirmation, negation. Unspeakable joy spoken in its being unsaid.
V The choreosonic itinerary and protocol for certain political desires of ascendancy is nothing, as so many breaths we take, the materiality thought immaterial. Northup’s text can be considered a choreosonic itinerary and protocol because in it he gives such painstaking, exacting detail for how things were done on plantations. This is not limited to his descriptions of cotton picking and sugar cane harvesting. His attention to detail also included descriptions of dances, jokes, travels in woods to meet with friends. Bilali’s choreosonic itinerary and protocol converges with Northup’s in an indecipherability based in a refusal to consider sociality anything other than nothing, sociality as the zone of nothingness, not worth the time to represent in filmic renderings. Northup’s description of one dance, for example:
One “set” off, another takes its place, he or she remaining longest on the floor receiving the most uproarious commendation, and so the dancing continues until broad daylight. It does not cease with the sound of the fiddle, but in that case they set up a music peculiar to themselves. This is called “patting,” accompanied with one of those unmeaning songs, composed rather for its adaptation to a certain tune or measure, than for the purpose of expressing any distinct idea. The patting is performed by striking the hands on the knees, then striking the hands together, then striking the right shoulder with one hand, the left with the other – all the while keeping time with the feet, and singing…[xiv]
Northup offered a description for what is today known as “pattin juba.” Importantly, he says that the songs are “unmeaning” and are utilized more for the intensity of experience than something like giving an idea. Like Bilali’s writing, such choreosonic itinerary and protocol is grounded in the event of movement – whether hand across page, left-right, or body across ground – and in such movement is the necessity to think its sociality. But these movements take breath, they are breathed meditations, breathed sacraments offered by the social presupposing the having been. Dancing while singing aestheticizes the breath, it gives the breath the capacity to be utilized intentionally with force as a critical intervention into the idea that black flesh stolen only operates out of duress. What the breath gives, then, is the evidence of life in the flesh, life in black flesh, life in the zone of nothingness. What the breath gives, then, is an aesthetic practice of the having been.
[i] Cornelia Bailey and Christena Bledsoe, God, Dr. Buzzard, and the Bolito Man: A Saltwater Geechee Talks about Life on Sapelo Island, 1st ed. (New York: Doubleday,, 2000), p. 1.
[ii] There is contention as to the attribution of authorship of this collection of writings, though. Ronald Judy argues that authorship may be multiple and that, perhaps, only sections of the text may have been authored by Bilali himself, though this is difficult to determine. See Ronald A. T. Judy, (Dis)forming the American Canon: African-Arabic Slave Narratives and the Vernacular (Minneapolis : University of Minnesota Press, c1993.), p. 271.
Kanye was certainly not the first to say, when he told Sway, “you ain’t got the answers…!” This is a rather common reply to people who opine about, and argue against, status quos in their variegated guises and how they must be destroyed in order to produce something like justice in the world. It is often claimed, for example, that if one is not offering a concrete set of solutions in a one-to-one relationship to the problems enumerated that they have an inherent flaw, the inherent flaw producing a fundamental incapacity for one to resist. That is, one isn’t allowed to disagree if they’ve not a list of otherwise plans. Though I disagree with the thrust of such ludicrous opinion, I still want to return to Blues for Mister Charles to offer a set of thought experiments, what my friend Lindsey Andrews says produces “questioning [that] leads…away from ‘explanation’ and allows [one] to describe anew time, history, and experience in ways that can respond to the insistent and unpredictable materiality of the world.” This, she further offers, can go “beyond epistemological determinism, closed ontologies, the limits of historical causality, ideology, and institutional structures.” So, in brief, I want to offer a few thought experiments that could help disrupt the notion of education, through the institution of schooling as it currently exists, in the service of privileging learning as a social, critical, open-ended practice.
So, some made up thought experiments:
Organizations like Teach for America, as a friend once suggested, could focus on building capacity in cities rather than bring a supposed cadre of caring individuals from outside those cities – people from mostly elite, private universities – to teach. Instead of utilizing funds raised to train post-college students for five weeks in order to dedicate two years of teaching in underserved public schools, monies could be funneled to teachers, teacher assistants and aids who currently work in public schools. This would give them the resources to build capacity in location. It would disrupt the sort of logic of disaster capitalism and poverty volunteerism, wherein students from elite universities give time and energy to feel-good projects. This would, of course, mean a radical reorganization of funding for organizations like TFA, and would put pressure on thinking about local communities not as transient, but as places where people live, where people have thriving lives. This would simply give resources such that such thriving could be more achievable. TWO
End standardized testing as it currently is apocalyptic literature. Standardized tests are high stakes for both teachers and students currently construed, and the ability for schools to receive funding under Race to the Top is connected to their performance on such tests. Such that they are apocalyptic in nature, meaning they serve a purportedly prophetic, end-times, doomsday function. They supposedly foretell the cognitive abilities of students and the pedagogical insufficiencies of instructors. They are used in the service of heightening the powers of the nation-state to determine the destiny of its subjects. In this literature, though, is not a renewal of the world but the perpetual brushing up against doom, against destruction, without ever a promise or movement towards justice. Simply, this literature is used to condemn certain classes of people to unending failure, economic and social lack.
I have been obsessed with versioning lately and Blackpentecostal singing has always intrigued me because people in different locations will sing the very same song with different words in different random places. Some fiction:
when i was a kid, this showed up mostly when we had visitors to our church or when we went to visit other churches for afternoon services at churches with whom we fellowshipped. my brother and i would notice how people would sing the same songs we knew but with subtle differences. of course, you’d have to be part of the pentecostal world to really appreciate it. but we loved to sing, for example, one song as
i believe god, i believe god / i believe god will do what he said
no matter what problems may bring / i believe, i believe god
but then we’d be somewhere else, some other church but they’d say
i believe god, i believe god / i believe god can do anything
no matter what problems may bring / i believe, i believe god
of course. the slight difference between “will do what he said” and “can do anything” is illusory to most. the rhythm was ostensibly the same. the repetition and the sentiment, pretty much consistent. but my brother and i’d hear this and we’d look at each other and smirk just a bit. not only smirk, i suppose, but we would want our correcting voices to be heard, so over the incorrectness, we’d say as loudly as possible – even if only to each other – will do what he said! – forcefully. it was a moment to articulate difference as inherently part of the pentecostal world in which we were part. it was cool because we’d notice the difference without being able to account for it or name what it meant. all we knew to do was keep singing what we knew the words to be a bit louder. it became an occasion for us to laugh with each other at them. it wasn’t disparaging or anything like that. they would take our well-worn testimony service songs (this, well before the advent of powerpoint and screens, at least in our churches) and enunciate them with different lyrics. they “messed up” our song. but the songs never belonged to us in the first place.
The critique in Blues for Mister Charles was about how education, through schooling, attempts to make us the best kinds of citizen-subjects, that it requires us to be indebted to the nation-state in order for its ongoing operation. So perhaps Blackpentecostal song can be an articulation of the resistance to normative function and form. This to say that Zora Neale Hurston’s concept of variation with difference has a lot to do with learning over and against schooling, over and against education. What she calls “characteristics” of black performance – with variation around a theme being a primary marker – is instructive for considering the utility of the local as a means to resist the governance, the governmentality, the surveilling that obtains to national standards, national rubrics.
Local disruptions are already proving to be critical interventions against national standards, against the notion of the standard. What Blackpentecostal singing does is not simply assert that the original is not the only way but that the very concept of pure origin must be interrogated, that what we have is only an irreducible series of relations. What works in Philadelphia is in relation to, but different from, what works in Chicago. And what works in Chicago is in relation to, but different from, what will work in Portland, Oregon, what will work in Los Angeles. But the desire to produce disruption to the logics of national standards, privatizing of education, charters and choices are variations on a theme. What is urgent in our times is that the theme under which we typically think about learning must be uprooted from the making of proper citizen subjects indebted to the nation-state.
To be clear, the idea of the local runs counter to the concepts of choice and charters because they are based in corporatized models, not simply nationalist but nationalist-towards-global competitiveness. And this because public resources are used in the name of local solutions but are exploited for private, anti-public and thus anti-social ends. More, these schools still proliferate the idea about education, through schooling, as making of its students proper, obedient citizens. These schools do not disrupt the logics of neoliberalisms, they are not freedom academies. Rather, they perniciously promote neoliberalism realities against imaginative leaps while lining pockets of elites.
But what about going to college? Currently, the centering display of inequitable power within educational institutions is their desired capacity to make people accountable to themselves. Such that a student homeschooled, another unschooled and yet another traditionally schooled each must make their labor coherent and legible to whatever institution they desire to enter. The institution, however, is not required to make itself available to the desires and labor of such students, it is not about what the students bring but how said students can replicate the normative form of the institutions and the normative arc for becoming a citizen. One can spend their days in radical primary and secondary schools, backpack through Europe and volunteer for causes, but will still eventually need to “mature” and become cohesive, legible students that desire educations for a good jobs, in order to still replicate the indebtedness to the current configuration of political economic inequity. This notion of being mature has everything to do with the dissociation from, the escape from, the local as a normative trajectory of becoming.
The notion of “going away to school” is not transcendent across linear space and time, though it does function in our society to index the process of maturation. One’s ability to “go away” revolves around normative class aspirations and theories of citizenship, such that we consider those who live at home while in post-secondary education as in a wholly different and developmentally deficient progression categorically (thanks to Allison Curseen for prompting in me this idea regarding the difference between growth and development). In different Canadian provinces, for example, people tend to choose local universities, something like our community colleges, without there being a denigration of the concept. And even within the borders of these United States, many students attend state schools that are close to home, though the overarching narrative is that one should go away for college education. [Full disclosure: the university at which I teach has roughly 50% of its students from the immediate Southern California area and many live at home with parents.]
I focus on the concept of going away to simply mark the ways a normative developmental narrative regarding one’s education often is about leaving the social space from which one emerges, about denigrating the sociality that makes us possible, in order to become the scholar, the theorist, the thinker, over and against the social that is the purported zone of homogeneity. But because of the digital, we actually have an opportunity to rethink what the bounds of the local are, sorta like when Jesus implies that one’s neighbor is whomever one finds oneself around in need at any given moment. The digital allows us to consider the emergence of localness as grounded in communities of theme, communities that are not just near each other physically, but communities that form of necessity in order to respond to moments of crisis. When Susan G. Komen decided to defund Planned Parenthood in 2012, a localized community emerged quickly to respond through email, message boards, tweets and facebook posts. This localness was based on the object of analysis having within itself a centripetal force such that folks gathered around it, mobilized around it, in order to enact change. So I’m not making an argument that folks must attend schools “close to home” physically as the corrective to the logics of education in the service of becoming citizen-subjects. Rather, I am arguing that the theme of learning being pressed into such service must be disrupted, and it can be disrupted through another spin, the spin of the object, the object drawing us to itself, the object of justice.
These are, admittedly, wild thought experiments. But that, I think, is my point. I’d like to imagine another way of being, another mode of thinking and learning that does not submit to the dominant narratives nor the current configurations of inequity. Perhaps wild thinking, radical imagination, can give a momentary disruption long enough to think that an otherwise is possible because it is, in all its unruliness, thinkable.
i Our time is not unique. Ours is an ongoing rupture of violence and violation that was set loose into the world as far back as 1492, though the logics of displacement, aversion and the making of objects through categorical distinction no doubt existed previous to that historic flashpoint. Our time is not unique. Ours is one that attempts to consolidate revolutionary impulse and radical social form into ever-expansive neoliberal dreams. Our time is not unique. Ours is grounded in the flowering and flourishing of the promise citizenship, a promise that necessitates submitting ourselves to violence the nation-state imposes on its subjects. Our time is not unique. And yet we would do well to consider the form inequity takes in our milieu, we would do well to be attentive to the creative capacity and inventionary instinct internal to empire such that we can contend against injustice in all its guises.
ii Learning is not a luxury. Learning is what we do, what we be, when we gather together with others to think, to consider, to play the dozens, to laugh, to shout in church aisles, to dance in nightclubs, to sit on porches, to sit at tables eating starchy foods and fried meats. Learning is what we do, what we be, when we commit ourselves to sociality, when we commit ourselves to longsuffering that would have us – in all our fleshly thereness – be with, rather than raptured from, the worlds of our inhabitation.
But learning is under radical assault. Learning is, because of schooling, being submitted to neoliberal realities against radically imagined fantasies. Schooling is becoming a privatized industry and this runs antithetical to the necessary openness to worlds that constitute the grounds for learning to occur. Schooling gives education but we are discovering a concept that we have already known, which we already been known for a long time: learning is not the primary goal of school but, rather, its goal is education. And being educated is about becoming the proper kind of subject, the proper kind of citizen, for the state’s use and exploitation. Education, so construed, is about making a promise today about one’s future relationship to the nation-state, it is about becoming indebted to a political order. Learning, in such a configuration, is the resistance straining against such indebtedness because learning gives the tools for critical analytics, critical enfleshment, social flesh as a critique of governance.
Stefano Harney says of debt that, “The common way to understand debt…is that we are, by coming into debt, making a promise to act out capitalist social relations – as they currently exist – in the future.” And it is this common understanding of debt which is operationalized in the service of education currently. And I’m not just talking about, teachers in K-12 classrooms that are literally being encouraged to go into financial debt, taking “low interest” loans for school supplies. And I’m not only thinking about the financial debt college students accrue by taking out exorbitant loans in order to provide for their essentials, in order to eat and have shelter while attending post-secondary institutions. I include all forms of schooling that would seek to make us better, more productive citizens for the nation-state as requiring of us a certain indebtedness for purportedly allowing us time and space to be educated. Education – through schooling – makes us debtors, the best kinds of citizens, through forcing the promise of futural relationships of inequity. Schooling is the instrument mobilized to deliver education, schooling attempts to suppress creativity, desire, uniqueness and sociality through standardized tests, assessment rubrics, core “standards.” Schooling, as a mode of administration, is against the very interrogation of current (anti-)social relations with respect to the current political economy. Schooling is about the inculcation and enactment of obedience: “What societies really, ideally, want is a citizenry which will simply obey the rules of society. If a society succeeds in this, that society is about to perish.” Yet James Baldwin offers, “The obligation of anyone who thinks of himself as responsible is to examine society and try to change it and to fight it – at no matter what risk. This is the only hope society has. This is the only way societies change.”
We are told that through schooling, if we work and study hard, that we too can go to college and get good jobs. But there is much that remains unsaid in such declarations. The hard work and study that produces an entrance into college and good jobs is the maintenance of the existing anti-social relations of inequity. These existing anti-social relations keep us forever competing against one another. Our labor is exploited to make the nation a strong global competitor. Suppressed, then discarded, is the question about the purpose of learning itself. Education is about the suppression of the question in order to gain entrance into normative mode of subjectivity, about our emergence into the “world” as it is currently construed. What also goes unsaid is that the suppression and eventual discarding of the question about the purpose of learning is as true for Science, Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields as it is for thought that occurs within the delimitation of the Humanities. It is not the Humanities that are under assault; it is learning itself.
What is occurring with explicit intensity in our milieu is the trade-ification of all modes of knowledge such that anything learned is supposed to be used to make the nation-state competitive on a global scale. Folks majoring in business, law and medicine are just as discouraged from radical creative thinking as folks in the Humanities are. The lack of arts and music programs – discarded as so many unwanted questions – has had pernicious effects in poor K-12 school districts. No longer are arts and musical knowledges considered integral to the development of the whole student, save in situations where parents can afford such seeming excessive, creative luxuries. The indebtedness that becomes the foundational characteristic of education is virulent in its attack against various literacies, various social practices of learning.
Literacies are not eternal, they change over time. Literacies are always social practices, engagements with others in order to produce otherwise worlds of inhabitation and thus are not reducible to the technique of delivery. Important are what the techniques make possible and the kinds of interventions radical social practices of learning can be. For example, it was not always assumed that the ability to read and write would give coherence to something like a subject, it was not always thought that personhood was predicated on this particularized form of knowledge transfer. But the antebellum rule against reading and writing for enslaved folks is instructive. Though some theorists claim that reading and writing would allow enslaved persons the “establishment of the African’s human identity to the European world,” it seems more appropriate to consider how literacies were utilized to resist the nation-state’s violence and violation. What we must do in our own time is give attention to the antebellum period’s injunction against reading and writing, not because reading and writing confer personhood but because the one’s who were juridically prohibited from the practice recognized its utility. We must attend to the past in order to ask what the modes of learningare today being kept from the marginalized, what modes of literacies are today deemed unnecessary and are discarded as excess.
During the antebellum period what was given was an education that sought to suppress and discard difference, what we might think of as common standards. Indeed, various skills were acquired in order to keep the peculiar institution profitable – everything from agricultural sciences to hospitality. But there was also learning, learning through fleshly performance that was against the education that would make of these black objects mere organic machines with no will nor volition. The learning took place not just in the hush harbors and clearings. Learning also took place as the excessive creative force that sustained people during labor, such that singing and chanting and hollering could measure distance, denote time and provide protective noise for escapes. Folks learned against the trade-ification of education, against the skillset deemed necessary for labor.
And today, too, we have education wherein everything acquired is supposed to be instrumentalized into the service of the state, helping us become proper citizens. It would seem that the national Common Core Standards Initiative would address issues of access in education. The CCS only organizes learning such that it will have people both college and career ready. But the guise of “common standards” is quite antithetical to learning as social practice. The CCS contributes to the suppression and discarding of difference in the service of state power, is just another iteration – under neoliberal delusions – of the suppression and discarding of internal, irreducible difference. The critical intervention calls us to descend just below the surface.
iii On the surface of things, it perhaps looks as if these various initiatives and calls for STEM education and denunciations of the Humanities, are means to care for individuals, to care for the “self.” But if there is anything artist and philosopher Adrian Piper’s work has elaborated, it is the interrogation of surfaces.
Piper’s Art for the Artworld Surface Pattern is a tightly constructed room, closed off from the world, full of sensory information on walls.
The “piece” is a rather small room that could fit three to four persons in it. Walls flat with only one small entrance, the furnitureless room’s walls and ceiling are covered with newspaper clippings of various political struggles and world disasters. As well, “At arbitrary places across the photographs the words NOT A PERFORMANCE are stenciled in red” (162). There is also the insertion of sound and speech with a recorded tape loop. The speech is the repudiation of the material on the wall as art, it is a stereotyped reply about the aesthetics “that ignored completely [the] topical thrust” of the work (164). As such, the piece “surrounds you with the political problems you ignore and the rationalizations by which you attempt to avoid them” (161). The point of the overload of both visual and sonic material was to create a situation in which, “in order to distance oneself from the work, one would be forced to adopt some critical stance that did not itself express the aestheticizing response” (167).
People enter this art space only to be confronted with problems they’d much rather avoid. This confrontation takes place on the level of the scene constituted by the seen and the sound. What Piper does – by way of the words “NOT A PERFORMANCE” as well as the audio loop – is to gather and insert thought, which is typically thrown away. To be attentive to the “surface pattern” is to give attention to that which easily recedes, that which readily is discarded. Attending to the “surface pattern” equally requires attention to that which exits right below the surface, that which is barely there, that which shows up by way of a resistance to showing up. The “noisy” walls and speech saturate the room, causing the looking away, the aversion, for what is seen and heard. Piper uses the surface of walls and the plain-ordinary surface-level speech of dismissal to have viewers go below such surfaces, to confront the world.
And on the surface of things, there seems to be much chattering about the need for quality education, for everyone from pre-K to post-secondary. But what this chattering does is obscure the ways education, through schooling, has followed the arc and trajectory of western theologic-philosophic concepts for the grounds of existence: the denunciation of the social in the service of the individual. Education, through schooling, is about the means to articulate a coherent, stable, impenetrable “self,” one that competes with others to prove worth and value, one who submits to metrics and measurements, to tests and examinations. This “self” also submits to being evaluated by those around about them and the examiner will make declarations about the capacity for the individual to be good, to be intelligent, to be normal. Just below the surface of the chattering is the desire to keep the status quo operational, is the desire to reduce the capacity for learning while increasing access to education. Barack Obama provides a sufficient example.
[A] lot of young people no longer see the trades and skilled manufacturing as a viable career. But I promise you, folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree. Now, nothing wrong with an art history degree – I love art history. So I don’t want to get a bunch of emails from everybody. I’m just saying you can make a really good living and have a great career without getting a four-year college education as long as you get the skills and the training that you need.
This pontificating cannot be divorced from the radical restructuring of public education currently under his administration. It has been noted time and again that his Race to the Top (RTTT) is more egregious than Bush’s No Child Left Behind, and it is not by accident that the privatization of public education under the guises of charters and choice has many of these “boutique” schools focusing on STEM rather than anything in the Humanities. It is also not by accident that many of the first programs that were defunded in public education were arts and music programs. It is not that Obama is against art-making itself as a practice. He used at least three Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service observations to put paintbrush to hand in order to show what service to one’s community looks like.
What is vilified, then, is not action – a trade, a skill – but thinking, collective, improvisational, social thinking about any range of actions one could take in the world. It is perfectly within the horizon of education to acquire a set of common actions in order to get tasks done; what is not encouraged is the theory that would have one thinking about color and saturation, about lines and texture. This is problematic and vulgar because it also assumes that intellection is a result of class, that learning only happens amongst elites. However, for example, the ruptures on warehouse floors in Detroit during the Black Power movement in the 60s and 70s with the League of Revolutionary Black Workers prove otherwise, workers reading Marx in order to critique unfair labor practices. So though Obama could go into schools to offer skills, there was no theorizing about the policies that create the conditions of inequity that produce the need to volunteer at such a location. Obama painting walls and wood while decrying art history only underscores the ways social intellectual practices as modes of inhabitation, as ways of life, are under assault.
Creative social intellectual practice itself is excess, and thus is only ever constitutive for an otherwise world’s production of joy and justice. With the assault to social practices of learning, creative enjoyment is then marshaled as a mode of labor – through volunteering – that must be relegated to days off, must be relegated to modes that do not have within them the critique of systemic injustice. This is the promise of being indebted to society through education: to carry into the future the present conditions of inequity, including such good faith, feel good projects of every-now-and-then volunteerism. What cannot be questioned, what must go uninterrogated, is the condition of the world that produces this demand of education over and against the open-endness of learning.
Such that what Obama opined about Art History was not an accidental throwaway sentence about the impotence of art history education to acquire employment. Deeper still, he acknowledged – without stating so explicitly – that future job growth will obtain mostly with jobs requiring only a high school diploma. Doug Henwood had to say about jobs in the next ten years: “So according to fresh projections from the [Bureau of Labor Statistics], the 10 most rapidly growing jobs over the next decade, accounting for a quarter of total job growth, require on average no more than a high school diploma, and only one – nursing – pays more than the national median wage.”
Like explicit newspaper clippings with NOT A PERFORMANCE written across our bodies, the fact of blackness – through the very inhabitation of our flesh – is political, calling for the various aversive logics that attempt to control us. Rather than lingering with the question of the purpose of learning, the nation-state seeks to quiet the perpetual questioning that we carry in and as our fleshliness, the nation-state seeks to paint over the walls of inequity in the service of keeping us indebted to inequity. Social practices of learning, against schooling education, would have us ask interrogate empire’s desire for a promise of our complicity to the current political economy.
iv This is a Blues for Mister Charles. Charlie, we all know, is the informal, the non-standard, the familiar and intimate version of Charles. What education does today specifically is move from Charlie to Charles, exploiting the rhetoric of common standard while actually enacting the force and violence of normativity. Rather than the irreducibility of internal differentiation and variation of care and concern that emerges in the local that would yield such intimacies and familiarities, scantrons, rules of law and order orders and rules the school day. Nutrition managers felt compelled to follow rule and order, discarding the food of children, rather than break such ruling in the cause of justice. The children were quite explicitly punished for their parents’ future promises of indebtedness to the anti-sociality and alienation of capitalism. This fact of inequity and debt has been a constitutive force of anti-blackness and we are simply seeing the logics of inequity proliferating. The formal rather than the intimate, the anti-social rather than the zone of sociality, the standard rather than differentiation: all this is what education, through schooling, would produce antithetical to social practices of learning.
As James Baldwin stated, “Mister Charlie” is the non-disruption of white supremacist logic. Such that Blues for Mister Charles would not disorder the logic of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. Rather, the formality merely marks the spread of empire’s violence and violation more explicitly felt, known, present. Charles rather than Charlie is an affect of purported post-raciality, a vision of livability wherein differences do not matter, where they are suppressed and discarded in order to have “a more perfect union.”
Yet, various movements – the Philadelphia Student Union, Chicago Teacher’s Union, North Carolina’s Moral Monday Movement, as examples – are using their flesh to make promises of bad debt, of black debt, that refuse to take the current model of anti-sociality into the future. These varied movements provide examples of learning that are against education, learning that produces impropriety, learning that is itself a critique of any notion of a common core standards, and a more general critique of the emergence and arrival into citizenship. And this by their walking and display of signs. And this by their angered voices and pleas. They refuse, and thus we should refuse, to sing blues for Mister Charlie, for Mister Charles, that would leave Mister uninterrogated. They recognize that formality and standard are effects of the continual hiding of violence from view. Like how a protest of 80-100 thousand people this past weekend in North Carolina went unnoticed in mainstream media, there is an aversion to our fleshly ways of learning, an aversion for refusing quieting and sitting still allowing the nation-state to enact violence on us without resistance. They, we, refuse. They are, we are, using flesh, as Harney would say, to promise to refuse to take today’s anti-sociality of capitalist debt arrangements into the future. They have, we have, better things to carry.
 My understanding of debt – which will run throughout this piece – is entirely influenced by Stefano Harney and Fred Moten’s notion of debt and indebtedness. For the important treatment of the topic, please see Harney and Moten, The Undercommons.
 Adrian Piper, Out of Order, out of Sight, 2 vols. (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1996).
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.
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?
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.
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 withthe 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.