to be well fed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wasted Youth (2000)

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

Shadow Sculpture
Wild Mood Swings (2009-10)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

pleasure (but not) politics: on beyoncé

i
There are certain truths we hold to be self-evident, axiomatic even. And friendship is no exception when it comes to the declaration of such purported claims. It always begins with best of intentions: “you deserve love!” they say to me, big smiles, warm hearts, open minds. Still, I end up thinking, “well, who doesn’t?” Of course, “well, who doesn’t?” is almost a non sequitur, almost a straw man query. Almost. What the non-verbalized response does is displace the initiating remark just long enough to consider all the baggage our intentions – whether for good or ill – traffic in. Like, what’s love got to do with it? It being deservability? We tend to talk about love as a thing folks can earn, as a resource that is limited and, thus, as a resource that should be rationed out, lest we squander it. We submit love to our ideas of conservation, that if we give away too much, it will dwindle, it will dissipate. Like so many Clair Hanks Huxtables, we will be so fatigued that we will “have nothing left to give.”

The conversation about how love is deserved for me – always of the romantic type, to be sure – typically emerges because I intimate that I’d like love, that I want it, that I seek some sorta romantic, erotic sociality that develops over time and space.

So a friend will ask, “do you want to be in a relationship?”

I’ll reply, “I definitely want to be in one!”

And the friend, with the best of intentions, “aww! I hope you find the one…you deserve it!”

What does deserving have to do with desire? We don’t typically declare that we’ve worked hard to find something along the order of romantic relationships: as old adages go, you won’t find it until you stop looking for it. But the idea keeps emerging: that the folks we deem good enough, smart enough, cool enough are “deserving” of love. I tweeted a while back that this idea of deserving bothers me. It bothers me because it displaces pleasure, it displaces desire, in the service of the sensible, in the service of the rational. Affection, care, concern are – as much as I can tell – extravagant and superfluous, they are uncontainable and uncontrollable. They are – as love – the very antithesis and resistance to that which can be earned. What would it mean if we did not try to force desire –pleasure itself – into the mode of needing be justified? What if pleasure and desire need not cohere with sensibilities in order for us to think along and with them? And what would an ethics of pleasure and desire – liberated from rationality and sense-making – mean for the way we conduct ourselves in the service of justice? Thomas Jefferson was wrong about lots of things, but happiness – which is to say pleasure, desire – was not one of them. So let us, like him, enter into its pursuit.

ii
Much ado has been made over Beyoncé’s new album – just a bit over a week old – Beyoncé.  What most intrigues me – and it seems lots of folks, actually – are the discussions that emerged regarding the very possibility for her being a feminist. Brittney Cooper at the Crunk Feminist Collective stated that some folks had their “panties in a wad” when “Bow Down, I Been On” was released but that, fundamentally, Beyoncé is a “work in progress.” Over at Global Grind, Christina Coleman stated that Beyoncé not only snatched edges but the ones of a particularly feminist variety. Bee Rowlatt opined that it was Blue Ivy, ultimately, who transformed Beyoncé into a feminist. But not so fast: Real Colored Girls took umbrage with the very idea that she’s a feminist, using Pimp Theory to found their claim. Mia McKenzie, as well, questioned, “are we really arguing that calling yourself a feminist while allowing your husband to spit incredibly disgusting anti-woman shit alongside you on your album is just as legit as not calling yourself a feminist while demonstrating consistent feminist ideals…”? Even a white gay dude – Matt Capetola – weighed in, stating that Beyoncé didn’t do enough to include “the Gays” in her album, that, actually, it was an intentional choice, “an act of willed exclusion.” Lots, in other words, has been written about Beyoncé’s capacity to be a particular kind of object, which – it seems to me – has its foundational claim based on a critique of pleasure and desire itself, regardless of whether one is in favor of or against (or somewhere in the middleverse) her being a feminist.

beyoncé

All the writings – both in favor of and against Beyoncé in this context – are grounded in a desire to justify why one does or does not dig Beyoncé, why one casts or does not cast her as feminist. These are all ways to have pleasurable experience make sense, to make pleasure cohere and concretize in ways that are acceptable. We have no room for excess, excess that goes beyond words, beyond language, into another realm altogether; excess that glories in the audiovisuality of sensual experience; excess that is constitutive for otherwise modes of inhabitation in the world that refuses rationality – constrained thought – as primary. Yet here we are: having to make objects “make sense” for our politics, having to justify our experiences of pleasure, lest folks come for our feminist cards. The conversation about the very possibility of feminism is delimited by the horizon of what feminism is supposed to be, to use my colleague Nick Mitchell’s terminology, as a “disciplinary matter.”

The problem with thinking modes of existence through disciplinary projects is that it does not deal well with excess. These disciplinary projects are all about, in a word, containment. And such is the case with the Beyoncé argument – some call it “war” – about the very possibility of her being delimited in a concept called “feminism.” The disciplinary concept itself declares some behaviors, as an a priori principle, beyond its horizon as rule, as law. These modes of knowledge production are about the justification for, and perpetuation of, institutions, the justification for, and perpetuation of, categorically distinct – which is to say, contained and non-excessive – thought. Such that these disciplines don’t deal well with wordlessness or celebration. Such that within these disciplines, things, topics and ideas can be objects of knowledge we grasp but certainly not objects that have within the capacity to genuinely move, which is to say queer, us. We make objects cohere with our political projects even if the objects bespeak their own internal incoherence, their own internal indecipherability. And only after we’ve determined that such objects do or don’t cohere do we allow their entrance into our rhetorical-theoretical domains as acceptable or are shunned. The very grounds upon which the capacity for one to be a feminist, in other words, is about the political desires, the futural visions, of the analyst, not the object. And this is a problem as old as Bishop Daniel Alexander Payne’s breaking up ring shouts – expressions of black faith, of black religiosity; a problem as old as E Franklin Frazier – after Payne – with his placement Holiness/Pentecostal churches under the heading “cults” in his sociological work.

Both Payne and Frazier are examples of a fundamental renunciation of pleasure that animates certain strains of disciplinary knowledges, opting instead to cohere around traumatic experience. Both theorists of black religion targeted black flesh as that which needed to be controlled, restrained even at the point of coercion, in order to demonstrate “proper” modes of religious reflection and piety. Black flesh, they believed, was acting otherwise than rationally, was deepening a relation to the improper. Both Payne and Frazier – even with the best of intentions, even while declaring themselves not only friends of, but named themselves as, negroes – considered the exuberant, dancing, expressive flesh of blackness as fundamentally in excess of confessions of faith. Neither Payne nor Frazier could, it seems, understand the desire to celebrate religiosity in ways that foreground the flesh nor understand the pleasure found in such celebration, particularly for a people whose flesh was always already hypersexualized, lascivious, queered. Don’t they know that all this celebration of flesh – in the flesh – will be a cause for others’ concerns about black flesh generally, so the line of reasoning went. Zora Neale Hurston though, when writing about the same Holiness/Pentecostals Frazier would, observed differently because she took seriously the possibility for her objects to exert a “dispossessive force” on her, a dispossessive force we might call Black Study. Hurston showed us, in other words, how to think with objects rather than for them, how to let objects speak for themselves and – in so speaking – provide the possibility for moving her, moving us. The dispossessive force of an object is grounded in its fundamental, irreducible incoherence, its originary excess.

The problem with marshaling feminism as a disciplinary matter to discuss Beyoncé is because of the way it precludes the possibility of pleasure itself – enjoyment of the album – to be anything other than a political object and, thus, a political declaration. You know, the personal is political. If you enjoy the album, it would seem, you have a certain set of political commitments that need be interrogated. However, when used as a political object and declaration, the “political” is coeval with “the traumatic” and the very possibility for a Beyoncé feminism – as the grounds upon which identification and enjoyment of Beyoncé’s art occurs – is foregrounded in the traumatic, not the celebratory. And this even when the album itself seems to want to linger in the possibilities for celebration and not trauma – even during moments of melancholy like “Heaven”’s recollection of miscarriage, even during moments of seeming rhetorical sexual violation like Ike/Tina cake references. The political, to be precise, is focused on the otherwise than fleshly – erotic, libidinous – experience. The political, rather than pleasure, is forced to be founded upon claims about traumatic experience of black girl- and womanhood. This allows for arguments about Beyoncé – and desires to be in relation with her and other black women – to use traumatic experience as the basis for teleology rather than disbelief in the conditions of the world that privilege marginalization of Othered folks.

To bespeak how Beyoncé’s album is an acceptable articulation of feminist politic, as a veritable “work in progress,” because it begins in a certain place but will, hopefully, end up somewhere otherwise and more radical is to consider her art as serving a Bildungsroman, some larger teleological principle. This mode of analysis may be well and good except it, again, displaces the capacity of the analyst’s pleasure and enjoyment to be adjunct to the politic. Pleasure and enjoyment are repressed in the service of a political claim for pleasure and enjoyment. In order to enjoy the album, the object Beyoncé is instrumentalized, her art is forced to cohere with a political itinerary such that enjoyment and pleasure emerge from the seemingly consistent political protocol. These sorts of analyses, however, make little room for the sorta excessiveness of desire, of enjoyment and pleasure as enjoyment and pleasure. The very erotics that make the album possible, it seems, are renounced in order to rhetorically claim the political nature of the erotics, the pleasure, the enjoyment of the object.

Are we enjoying or not enjoying the object or our arguments about the object?

iii
Beyoncé’s is a audiovisual movement and the audiovisuality of it all approaches something like a refusal of one, lone, sensual experience. Growing up Blackpentecostal, I realize that there are some experiences that refuse words, that refuse intelligible speech and linguistics. Blackpentecostals speak in tongues because words fail to capture something that we’re trying to bespeak. The experience of glossolalia – like love, like pleasure – is excessive. But this excess is constitutive for a critique of both theology and philosophy as categories of thought that delimit what do and do not count as intellectual projects. Crissle’s “oh my God!” and KidFury’s entire reaction to the album are instructive: though words were spoken, what is evident is the lack of language to account for the very experience of joy, exuberance, happiness – which is constantly pursued – that was had. A refusal to make it “make sense,” then, does not negate one’s enjoyment and pleasure but, perhaps, heightens one’s awareness to the nuances and possibilities of imagination.

Thus far, the arguments about the im/possibility of a feminist Beyoncé on Beyoncé are grounded in what the lyrics – or images – say. And never the twain shall meet. Is she saying she likes to have him “beat it up”…? Is her lack of clothing visually too titillating for a married woman with a child? These arguments treat text as totalizing. The possibility for feminism is relegated to the word, to the analyst’s ability to see and read clearly, to an enlightened mode of thought that privileges the individual reader, the individual viewer. But perhaps it is important that Jay doesn’t show up in the audiovisual experience until after “Haunted,” a decidedly first foray into conceptualizing identity and difference in the album. This song circumvents Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way,” and asserts – through audiovisual precision – that however you were born, whether like “that” or not, your personhood should be respected, your personhood should have – indeed – pleasure, even in the most unlikely of spaces. And in “Yoncé,” another woman-appearing person licked Beyoncé’s breast, and she did not shun but smirked through the experience. There was no dude (cis- or otherwise) that we can attribute such an action or gaze to…it happened, it seems, for the simple pleasure of the experience itself. And though “Drunk In Love” seems to have caused much controversy because of the “eat the cake, Anna Mae” comment, as one friend reminded folks on Facebook, people do not think that references to “you told Harpo to beat me” in black popular culture are fundamentally about the celebration of violence. More, many of the queer folks I’ve talked to seem to think – and I’d agree – that within the context of a rap about sexual positions and fun, that perhaps “eat the cake” is about analingus and not violence nor violation. But one would have to be open to queer sexualities as a way of life and not think that heterosexual sex is limited to missionary positions and one-directional penetrations.

And then there is “Superpower” written by Frank Ocean. Seemingly staged in an anarchist future, these folks are those who “thought the world would move on…without us.” Of course, this could be about love – romantic or otherwise – though a queered reading would render the song about the folks that are continually marginalized and who, often, wish we were some otherwise world away. The video of the song had folks fighting against the law and this illegality, this fugitivity, will be necessary to produce justice in our continually violent world. The world can’t live without us, can’t move without us. It is, in my estimation, a claim about the necessity of you – whomever you may be – and how you are integral to movement into justice.

iv
Perhaps this is not an album review (seriously…it’s not). Perhaps this is a way to think about what the stakes of the disagreement being had are. Perhaps we can agree that though artist intention is important, just as important is what art makes possible to think, to imagine, to conceive. Perhaps hearing Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie will be a first move into something like justice work. Perhaps not. Perhaps seeing the flesh of a black woman both complicatedly concerned and hyper aware of, but also seemingly insouciant regarding, her appearance will allow other black girls and women – both cis- and trans* – to consider the value of their own flesh, the praiseworthiness it holds, the sacredness that it is. But, of course also, perhaps not. What we are compelled to allow for is slipperiness and incoherence, for friendship – as Michel Foucault would have it – as a way of life. What we must do, in other words, is to allow for the force of inventing one’s life worlds as one goes along through moments in times as yielding the possibility for justice. With this friendship, we need not give empty platitudes about what one deserves nor what one has earned, we need not enclose and contain someone within our political projects as objects for our analysis that have nothing to give … but what we can give is reciprocity, support, love, critical feedback, accountability.

every black girl needs a makeover: for rachel jeantel

I
I believe in Black Study.[1] Black Study, for me, is a spiritual and performative practice of sociality, resisting normative theologies and philosophies. Black Study is about the ability for aesthetic behaviors typically deemed excessive, erratic, discardable, dismissible – behaviors in need, we might say, of a makeover – to be constitutive for other ways to exist in worlds. Black Study provides new models for collective intellectual movement and improvisational protocols for existing in otherwise worlds, it is a methodological mode of intense, spiritual, communal meditative critique and/as performance. Black Study is fundamentally about our capacity to be, and to exist, in the otherwise. Far out in space, right here against time; otherwise in the underside and underground of normative rule, function, form, law. From the murders of Sakia Gunn, Trayvon Martin, Jonathan Ferrell, Michele Hilliard and Renisha McBride to the incarceration of CeCe McDonald and Marissa Alexander, what is apparent are the ways that ours is a milieu of misrecognizing Black Study. These premature deaths, these carceral practices – grounded as they are in anti-blackness – variously illustrate the violence and violation that attends such misrecognition.

Our times privilege the individual, the subject, over and – yes – against the social, the collective. Modernity’s creation of the subject begs attention because it is grounded in concepts of rationality, of the individual’s capacity for intellection. Edmund Burke’s worry over the shouts of large crowds, for example, was because he considered such collective, improvisational noisemaking as having within it the potential for disturbing his individuated thought process:

Excessive loudness alone is sufficient to overpower the soul, to suspend its action, and to fill it with terror. The noise of vast cataracts, raging storms, thunder, or artillery, awakes a great and awful sensation in the mind, though we can observe no nicety or artifice in those sorts of music. The shouting of multitudes has a similar effect; and, by the sole strength of the sound, so amazes and confounds the imagination, that, in this staggering and hurry of the mind, the best-established tempers can scarcely forbear being borne down, and joining in the common cry, and common resolution of the crowd.[2]

It is the joining with the common cry, with the common resolution, which gave Burke pause. But from where is that pause borne, from where does such hesitance emerge? Was it from the noise itself, from the clamor and volume of storms and bombs bursting in air? Or was it the commons – the zone in which sociality happens – as the target of such critique? Turning to other thinkers of Modernity allows us to see that with the inauguration of this theological and philosophical mode of existence, “at its foundations, the modern notion of the individual and thus the modern age [itself was] intensely private and apolitical.”[3] Modernity, in other words, shored up against the commons, the porosity of flesh, moved to think one as a contained, continuous object. Susan Buck-Morss says the following about containment of the biological thing we call a “body”:

The nervous system is not contained within the body’s limits. The circuit from sense-perception to motor response begins and ends in the world. The brain is thus not an isolable anatomical body, but part of a system that passes through the person and her or his (culturally specific, historically transient) environment. As the source of stimuli and the arena for motor response, the external world must be included to complete the sensory circuit.[4]

What we have is evidence of the porosity of fleshly experience. We are, in effect, open to the world and that openness is the grounds out of which emerges sensate awareness of placement in inhabitation. We do a fundamental violence to flesh when we attempt to become the subject of modernity, when we aspire towards enclosure of our flesh, making of ourselves bodies that matter, divisible and individuated. In a word, fundamental violence is wrought when attempting to capture and incarcerate the flesh from its sense perception and motor response to the external world. The external world is not out there but in here, within each of – and passing through – us as we pass it along.

 

II
There is a pervasive belief that traumatic experience becomes the ground zero, the absolute zero moment, from which one’s identity, one’s self emerges. The normative conception of trauma is that whatever one was, or what one had, before such experience of violence and violation, quite literally, is nullified, is voided such that any trauma is totalizing. This conceptualization of trauma as the ground and absolute zero for identity, for selfhood, it seems, animates many of our modern liberal, leftist projects. The proliferation of identities – I’m a cisgender, black male-identified, gay-identified, middle-class, east coaster from a religious background but now am kindasorta agnostic and full of disbelief, a college graduate with three postgraduate degrees – is not only exhausting in its enumeration. It is also exhausting in that it presumes that the proliferatory remarks, as preface, gets one closer access to the subject we “really are.” The enumeration of identity is a purging of sorts, an expurgation of queerness as a way of life, a desire for the correct, coherent, stasis that is something like one’s identity.

Such that the way this proliferation is taken up, as a taxonomy of identities in many of our leftist projects, it seems, is grounded in bad faith in Black Study, it is grounded in the idea that identity, selfhood and the very possibility for community formation is founded at the points of victimization, at the moment of trauma. It misrecognizes institutional Black Studies as an area of concentration that is mostly concerned with traumatic experience of transatlantic enslavement, of Africa and its Diaspora; it wrongly assumes that the force of blackness finds its originary genesis in transit, in movement from Africa to the New World. It wrongly assumes, in other words, that blackness is tantamount to the experience of violence , the experience of pain, that black people feel ongoingly. Such that other liberal, leftist projects attempt to seek to find – with exacting precision – moments of violence and violation to both name their subject position and to claim space. This creation of subjectivity based on violence and violation not only seeks out traumatic experience in order to bespeak how it individuates and subjects us, it becomes the grounds upon which to analogize how one’s oppression and marginalization is like another’s: “gay is the new black,” for example. Simply, this desire for subjectivity is nothing other than a desire for a makeover, a redressing that leaves in tact structural and institutional inequity.

 

III
Ebony Magazine declared: It’s a “new year,” so she’s been gifted a “new look.” A new look, indeed, that has “refined” her. It is this refined “presentation” that “will help her transformation into adulthood.” Before the Huffington Post changed the name of a piece about her, the title stated flatly, “Rachel Jeantel Doesn’t Look Like This Anymore.”

racheljeantel1

Quickly changed to the softer, simpler, less sensational, “Rachel Jeantel Gets Makeover Compliments of Ebony Magazine, TheGrio,” the latter title rendering doesn’t fully capture the point of the Ebony spread: that Rachel does not have to embarrass Black folks anymore. Indeed, she’s been given a makeover and promised a scholarship to college by Tom Joyner. We could, of course, simply think about the makeover and scholarship offer as well-meaning gestures by well-meaning people, all that had Rachel’s best intentions at heart. But reading Amoy Pitters, makeup artist, state, “I know that this is going to change a lot for her,” one should wonder a bit more about just what the this in her declarative is supposed to be.

The makeover of Rachel Jeantel was supposed to make her look otherwise than she did during the court case of George Zimmerman. The makeover was not just a feel-good day of self-care but was bound up with aspirations others have for her: “We want to keep [her vivaciousness and personality], but translate it into ways that can work for her, for her new life as a student. We want to give her a look that’s going to translate from campus life, to any internships, or employment that she may be doing while she’s at school.” This all seems well and good until we recall that Rachel Jeantel was tried in the court of public opinion before she ever opened her mouth while testifying on behalf of her murdered friend. She was squarely lampooned for her body size, her complexion, her hair, her clothing … she was criticized for her speech patterns, her gestures, her frustrations with a very frustrating line of questioning. We cannot, it seems to me, think of the makeover aside from that context, the context that already declared her not enough, the context that rendered her fundamentally incapacitated, the context that said had she been something otherwise than what and who she was, perhaps the case would have concluded differently. She was the key witness, so the line of reasoning went. To desire to “translate” her appearance goes hand in hand with the unstated desire to translate her speech into coherence, into something standard – like collegial speechifying for the university.

The makeover is nothing other than bad faith in Black Study: it submits to the idea that whatever one is – particularly when the one is what we don’t want, don’t desire, before ever speaking – at the moment of trauma needs be nullified and voided, that a new way that dismisses as discardable one’s past is most urgent. It is to participate in the violent process of making flesh into bodies, of making the incoherence and otherwise rhetorical patterns and gestures of one Rachel Jeantel into a body, into a grammar, a grammar that coheres with wishes for upward mobility and respectable presentation. The makeover was about the individual as the primary target of trauma, the subject that needs to be redone, closed off, individuated … it was to form of her the bourgeois subject of enlightened thought, even and ever so on her way to college.

So though perhaps we might declare it a moment of self-care, because of the West’s theological and philosophical inheritance, we need interrogate, as my colleague would write (though I take it in another direction), who is the self of self-care? Who, or what, is the thing we attempt protecting when, for example, we explicate lists of trigger warnings for things that may perhaps cause the rexperiencing of trauma? Does not the declaration itself assume the very subject position that created difference-as-deficiency in the many guises that proliferate today such that we have racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, transphobia? Would not one have to assume – from the position that declares what experiences warrant such a declarative – that their experience is normative? Is not this normativizing of personal experience the very problem of, say, whiteness? Is this not, in other words, bad faith in Black Study, a desire to makeover flesh into coherent substance, cohesive subjectivity? What is the “self” – even when hinged to words like “care” – other than the declared desire for being the bourgeois subject of enlightenment?

Perhaps it seems impolite to critique a makeover when Rachel, it seems to me at least, enjoyed the experience. I don’t criticize enjoyment and I get a haircut about every three weeks. Still, I am reminded of what Yasmin Nair notes, that we exist in a moment where folks on the left enjoy confessing traumatic experience. This confessional posture also means that naming the personal – as Tamara Nopper writes – makes possible the occurrence when “someone who discloses they survived violence presumably cannot be questioned for their framing or political commentary even as they are presenting their work as feminist analysis and/or politics and trying to shape public conversation about violence.” The stories, these various modalities for confession, are all about enclosing and hindering the possibility for thought, for dialogue. “But it was a nice gesture!” is a modality of the personal-as-political with a foundational claim that operates through narrativizing sentiment as a means to shut down conversation.

It is from within this world of desired selfhood and subjectivity that such a makeover – which includes not only wardrobes and makeup and hair extensions, but college attendance; so perhaps we must think about the bourgeois conceptions of what it means to be a proper college student – emerges. Rachel Jeantel’s “new look” is specifically tied to class aspirations that others have for her. Folks were embarrassed by the sassiness with which she gestured, the speech pattern that resisted Standard American English, the eye rolling and general fatigue with the defense attorney’s continued attempts to caricature her. They were embarrassed, more precisely, by the excesses of her personhood, of her flesh, that was antithetical to the law. But instead of respond with overwhelming support, folks got on Twitter and Facebook, wrote blogs and opinion pieces, about how she was not properly prepared, about how her purported lack of education should have kept her away from the stand as a witness. I then wondered and continue to wonder: if her “updated look” is tied to her capacity for class mobility, how are we operating in the service of continued inequity rather than its dismantling?

No one can deny, when in the courtroom and making public appearances thereafter, that for Rachel Jeantel it was hair done, nails done, everything did … she, indeed, made sure to account for her appearance in ways that did not demean her nor others. Thus, to opine that what was given is critical care, a mode of self-care through accessorizing, does a disservice to who she was on the stand: resistant to the legal bullshit, to the legality of murder, to the illegibility of blackness in civil society. On the stand, all that she did served as a reminder that the anti-blackness that animates our American skies is not something she had to accept but was an anti-blackness that she could, and in fact did, refuse.

But now, it is thought at least, she is proper enough for a selfie.

 

IV
Perhaps it makes sense that the makeover of Rachel Jeantel cathects outward appearance with upward, college bound, class mobility. College campuses around the nation are guilty of beautifying neighborhoods in the service of importing folks to those neighborhoods who would be respectable. Homes get fresh coats of paint. Housing authorities and city planners get dollars to knock down and build up mixed use developments. Cities like Newark can claim new stadiums and restaurants and hotels and supermarkets (because, sure, Whole Foods is affordable, right?). What gentrification does is makes a claim on the flesh, on something like what Hortense Spillers describes as the “zero degree,” of a location considered uninhabitable, a zone of nothingness. This uninhabitability, this zone, is not of nothingness because no things are there but because the ones who are there, the things who abide there, are thought to have nothing, are imagined to be only excess, blobs waiting to be put together, to be made cohesive, to be reconfigured through fun makeovers. Gentrification wants to get us closer to the “really are” nature of the city, of what it could be if it’d simply get its act together, if the right accessories were included and others excluded, if certain modes of aesthetic practice were extended – like blond hair tips – and others – like low-performing public schools as so many undesirous tattered garments – were discarded.

But perhaps becoming respectable, too, is not enough. Vanessa VanDyke was told she’d have to cut her hair – because of its unruliness – or be expelled from school in Florida. Perhaps, too, Ebony and TheGriot have plans to team up to give her a makeover, make her hair acceptable such that she won’t be considered a threat, a problem, a “distraction.” The very thing that gave Rachel Jeantel’s testimony the force of radical dissent is that which, through the concept of the makeover itself, is most in danger of being engulfed, suppressed. Perhaps justice is an otherwise, a different mode of intellectual practice, which does not glory in the new as a replacement and eventual discarding of the old. The soul of blackness – the resistance of objects – stands to be gentrified, radically displaced, if we do not celebrate the radical edge of the already existent other world. Rachel’s eye rolls know the fact of radical edge; Vanessa’s hair practices this. Perhaps, like Rachel, every black girl needs a makeover. But, then, what would we say – and what would we do – when we submit to such crass ideology?



[1] This terminology, Black Study, is utilized rather than Black Studies to intimate a relation between what gets institutionalized in the university as Black Studies, African American Studies, Africana Studies, Ethnic Studies and Multicultural Studies beginning with the student protests on college campuses in 1968 with an intellectual practice that is always collective and resists institutionalization.

[2] Burke, “A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. Vol. 24, Part 2. The Harvard Classics,” See section titled “Sound and Loudness.”

[3] Gillespie, The Theological Origins of Modernity, 47.

[4] Susan Buck-M orss, ‘Aesthetics and Anaesthetics: Walter Benjamin’s Artwork Essay Reconsidered’, October, 62 (1992), 3–41 (pp. 12–3) <doi:10.2307/778700>.