Kim Burrell and Feeling Ugly

Tears formed in the corners of my eyes. I tell my friends that the older I get, the more emotionally raw and vulnerable and available I seem to be. It’s as if feeling were no longer worn on the sleeve but is now the very skin of flesh. Not like cloth that can be removed, emotion - the range of affective possibilities experienced through a weird simultaneity - is sensed much more expansively. It is what allows a certain entry into and perception of worlds. But also, and curiously, it seems to go unnoticed. Emotion is always there, for good or ill, but not the stuff I think about until a prick or pull or push. I am no longer protected, it seems, from a range of emotion, often sensed together in conflation but also, at times, in contradiction. Anyway.When I begin to tear up, my face becomes hot, I have to squint a bit to fight back the waters. And so my face got hot and I began to feel a bit congested, the way the mother-in-law called her, in the story, ugly. On an episode of the television show The Real, a mother-in-law wanted to talk about how she loves her daughter-in-law.

Can I be real? They went to church together. I liked her in church because I was her Sunday School teacher and he was like nah, ‘mom she’s ugly.’ She got older and started filling out, and he says ‘mom, I want to marry Jasmine’ and I said ‘Jasmine? The one you called ugly?’ And he said, ‘she’s not an ugly duckling no more.’ But I’m happy because she is the best thing that ever happened to my son. I love her.

Kim Burrell

Kim Burrell

Posted to a friend’s page on Facebook, it caught me off guard, that word, ugly. Hearing it, the way with which the mother-in-law shared such a story with such casualness as if she were talking about the weather or the time of day, bothered me. Ugly. She said it with such a coolness and calm. The way she told such a story, intimated for me at least, that it’s not the first time she told it, that she thinks it’s funny, that she thinks it’s loving. But in the story, her son is the one with the power to evaluate, she does not interrogate his relation to concepts of the pleasing, the beautiful, the pretty. It is he who is allowed to make such a determination and the mother doesn’t once consider that perhaps his capacity for evaluation is, itself, violent. He gets to determine what does and does not belong in the domain of the ugly. This is, in other words, violence of patriarchy given through the way she talks about ugliness. It’s the construction of power through allowing him the space to evaluate.

Hers was a soft narrative, not full of vehemence and screams. Sometimes ugly shows up in the smiles and gentle kindness of muted disgust. Laminated contempt. This disgust, this contempt, is always there but the vibration is made a bit more difficult to detect, its surface area dispersed a bit. There are other times when the trumpet mute is put down, when the lamination technology is removed. In such instances, disgust and contempt are not new but are felt, experienced, enunciated with a particular clarity and force.I’ve been thinking about ugliness ever since I saw the clip of The Real’s episode. But the hurt that ugliness is supposed to conjure sharpened when I listened to Kim Burrell and then Shirley Caesar proselytize about queer folks, death and the supposed sin of our existence. I am of course talking about Kim Burrell and her sermonic rant about queer folks and Caesar’s subsequent defense of the same.

What to make of such disgust and contempt preached? With such preaching, blackqueer folks are supposed to be made to endure and carry an ugliness we did not make. I want to think about the ugliness we did not make but are told to carry – that we often refuse to carry – without pathologizing those that find such ugliness impossible to bear but with no place to take it. I saw Burrell’s rant the same day I saw the episode of The Real. On the one hand, a mother-in-law pronounced that her daughter-in-law was no longer an ugly duckling. Rather than challenging her son to think more expansively, she intimates that it was the daughter’s “filling out” as the reason she is acceptable for her son. In her narrative, he maintained the capacity to choose. The video struck me as a sort of quiet heinousness, an unkindness delivered with sweetness and familiarity. But on the other hand was Kim Burrell, pronouncing to the folks gathered in the congregation of her church that homosexuality (to say nothing of transgender, gender-non-conforming, asexual or a range of other peoples) is only ever behavior and that such behavior is only ever perversion.

I came to tell you about sin. That sin nature. That perverted homosexual spirit, and the spirit of delusion and confusion, it has deceived many men and women. You as a man, you open your mouth and take a man’s penis in your face, you are perverted. You are a woman and will shake your face in another woman’s breast, you are perverted.

She also “prophesied” that for those of us that do not “come out” of our queerness, that do not abate our queer behavior, that death would visit us in 2017. To call our way of life perversion, to declare death on us. In another register, in another key, this is to call us ugly. These callings out of ugliness and perversion, to wish us death upon queer possibility, is to make explicit a spiritual and ethical failure rooted in patriarchy, misogynoir, forces aligned against blackqueer flourishing.

**

My first impulse was to have a sorta cavalier response to Kim Burrell. Though what she said, and the subsequent “apology,” are thoroughly theologically wrong, mean spirited, morally reprehensible, displaying for her a lack of integrity and consistency, I did not want to think much about what she’d said. I’m not there anymore, I thought to myself, so my first response was more about agreeing to disagree.But a cavalier response today is made possible today because of a lot of struggling with doubt and fear and shame and sadness. I wanted to live a life that we called holiness and tried and tried and tried and prayed a lot and shed many tears and meditated and supplicated with hopes of being delivered. I felt, in so many and deeply important and existential ways, that I was - that my very existence could only be - ugly. There were moments in my life when the very fact of my existence felt like too much weight to bear, that such a weight was eclipsing my capacity to breathe. And so a cavalier response, an insouciance, is the freedom dream and imaginative impossibility of my life’s past. Some days, I still don’t know how I got here.

As part of a research project I produced in 2007, I conducted several interviews with black church folks that are queer identified. Some were living out the closet, others deeply entwined within. Some reconciled faith and sexuality, others not. One interview I remember particularly. I asked her about how she experiences her sexuality, from the time she first discovered her erotic desires through the time of the interview. She responded,

I figured if I’m not able to shake this thing, I’m going to hell, which would suck because I love the Lord and I want to see his face and I don’t want to go to hell. So…what the difference is now: I am pretty certain that I’m going to hell but I’m really hoping for a pass. I’m hoping that the Lord will look back over my life and see how much I love him and let me in for my love for him alone and so that he will not judge me for the fact that I’ve been sleeping with women. But he will more see that I love him.

I still remember the way this respondent said, “I am pretty certain that I’m going to hell.” It was, for her, an inescapable fact, something she must endure. It meant her existence was one created for the purpose of being destroyed. It was as if she were saying she were tired from a long day’s work or wanted some water to drink. Listening to Burrell’s rant and the well-worn theological and doctrinal defenses that folks have used to assert her rightness, forced me to think about ugliness. Because ugliness is about a forestalled relation, one based on the capacity to evaluate, the capacity to analyze, the capacity to deem valued or valueless. Listening to Burrell caused me again to think about this respondent, how existence was a kind of brutality. Sunshine and rain, both then, are cruel. Happiness with a partner or loved one, then, is always the capacity for terror. Because such happiness will still compel her to think eternal torment is what awaits her.

I want to think about her interview in light of Burrell’s sermon because the doctrine and theology preached is one that fundamentally does harm. Blackqueer folks ask, in varied registers because of these theologies and doctrines: Am I broken? Am I beyond repair? Who will love me? Who will touch me? What is experiential for queer people - through normative theology-philosophy - spills over into the existential, is the ontological. It’s not that some of us do not have relations - many of us do - but it’s that the relations themselves are repulsive for many, that they are that which cause family and friends to recoil in horror. At times, we recoil from our very selves. We are made to feel, because of the fact of our existence, that we are supposed to endure and carry shame others project onto us.

So though we should have conversations about what it means for Burrell - who some might presume to be a single, lonely, straight, black woman struggling with attempting to live a sacred life - to preach such things, we should have conversations about sexuality and wholeness, certainly, we must also contend with the way doctrines and theologies teach that queerness itself is brokenness, is perversion, is nasty, is ugly. So it is not that straight single cisgender black women don’t experience loneliness or despair because of theology but I do want to hold a space that, for blackqueer folks in important and fundamental ways, we are told we must inhabit the world as broken, beyond repair, as untouchable. There is no relation blackqueer folks can have that would be presumed sacred and holy according to these theologies and doctrines. And that because even for those that claim deliverance, they have to continually prove that they are living what is presumed to be holy and sanctified, they have to allow surveillance of their behaviors and they will, for many folks, always remain “suspect.” Queer possibility destabilizes the possibility for ever living into a normative straightness. But this is the prize.

Discussing Burrell’s loneliness seems to me to be a case of what Naomi Murakawa describes as displaced anxiety:

[T]he danger of the displaced anxiety thesis (that racism isn’t really racism but really just only ever a concern about economics) [is that] it purports to analyze post-1960s structural inequality, but it replicates the post-civil rights logic and language of racism as nonstructural – a misplaced emotion, an atavistic irrationality, a mere epiphenomenon of class. The vocabulary is rigged against politics: no whiteness as property, just folksy white subgroups; no interests, just ‘fear’; no black or Latino targets, just ‘scapegoats.’ […]Without attention to white interests, the anxiety induced by ‘race’ does not reach the core of structural power so explicitly valued by displaced anxiety scholarship. Displaced anxiety acknowledges race as cultural membership while eliding white interests, and this, I suspect, is its core appeal in mainstream politics: displaced anxiety attributes support for policies that target and injure people of color to anything but white racist interests.

Focusing on the supposed loneliness of figures like Kim Burrell as a possible reason for her violent rant against queer possibility is, we might call here for this short essay, the displaced loneliness thesis: that homophobia isn’t really homophobia but only a concern about not being fulfilled sexually, only a concern about not being fulfilled intimately. The displaced loneliness thesis would then attend to, by making central, the affective and emotional posture of presumably single, cisgender, black, straight women when discussing queer antagonism and violence. It places, as central to the concern about violent rhetoric and its proliferation, the feelings of those said to not belong to such an aggrieved group.But I’ve been lonely. Sometimes, very much, still today. I came out the closet thinking I’d have all this availability for relationship and dating but that’s not been the case. I’ve failed, utterly, with an erotic life. In all my thirty six years, I’ve been single. I’ve dated here and or there but nothing sustaining at all. No relationship life to speak of, really. So it’s not an erotic life, an intimate relational life, that has sustained my ability to remain, to have joy, to have peace of mind. There has been loneliness and sadness on both sides of the closet, on both sides of attempting to speak more precisely about who I am without fear or shame or loathing. Loneliness, then, cannot be a reason that we accept for folks to espouse rhetoric that is violent and dangerous.

But this is another problem with the displaced loneliness thesis: it reduces sexuality and intimacy to sex acts in ways that Kim Burrell’s sermon demonstrate, it thinks queerness as only action and not longing, not desire, not the possibility of making something new, something otherwise. It cannot contend with choosing queer possibility even if that means choosing loneliness.

The displaced loneliness thesis cannot contend with the loneliness of blackqueer folks, the way loneliness is what we are to endure not as a temporal feature of living but as queer temporality itself. What I mean is that loneliness, through doctrines and theologies like those of Burrell, is what creates a life for queer folks, it is a temporal measure that engulfs time itself. Loneliness would not then be a momentary experience but would be the grounds for queer existence according to these theologies and doctrines. And the disgust and worry, the nastiness and ugliness, of queer possibility is the refusal of such theologies and doctrines and, as Stevphen Shukaitis might say, the courage and wisdom to make worlds.

One of the things I love about Instagram videos of @notkarltonbanks is that he shows, with stunning precision, that the black church is cultural territory for black women, that they are the ones that carry the tradition. But these women are not only straight, are not only cisgender. And I love James Baldwin because he shows that the black church is cultural domain for queer possibility too. But what this then means is that we have to think more about the textures between black and presumably straight ciswomen and the violence of homophobia, transphobia, queerphobia that emerges from these spaces. It is the antagonism to queer possibility of the quotidian, of the mundane, of the ordinary to which we must attend.

The first sermon I recall that lampooned queer folks with a sorta desired precision was Frances Kelly at the Church of God in Christ annual Holy Convocation, talking about “I’m sick of sissies…fanning over somebody’s choir,” about “bulldaggers,” and the so-called separation between holy and unholy. Kim Burrell, in other words, is not novel. We learn that patriarchy is an aspiration and the bodies that materialize such aspiration can be, and are, varied. To pretend that this rhetoric is only about black women and loneliness flattens a far too textured and much more complex set of circumstances.

The displaced loneliness thesis, in other words, cannot contend with the agential possibility and desires for power for people that are marginalized within certain contexts. Such a hypothesis also participates in the settler logic of ongoing displacement from the heart of matters - placing into the conversation, onto the ground, into the central space - the ones that cause harm and violence perpetually. Such a thesis, in other words, is a general displacement, it does not operate against the structures of inequity that produce gendered, racialized and classed violence but, by displacement, only ever revise and refresh such a practice. It cannot contend with the pleasure gained, as Amaryah Armstrong argues, by participating in the sociality of antagonism.

Such a displacement, with the settler logic that is its hydraulics, confuses through conflation specific performances emerging out of specific occasions - the celebration of Moonlight or saying “yaaasss, hunty!,” for example - with a theological-philosophical ideology made evident through a general relation, which is often a general antagonism, to worlds. In the particular instance of this writing, I seek to interrogate the ongoing, quotidian, mundane antagonism against the force of queer possibility and relationality and imaginative worldmaking capacities. Such imaginative worldmaking is not simply about “accepting” queer people through doctrinal and theological argumentation but about destabilizing and disrupting the very possibility of a normative world.

There is a quiet, smiley-faced delivery system – a nice-nasty way of being – that provides lamination for a general antagonism to queer worldmaking. This is made evident by failing to rise to the occasion to think more broadly about the relation between the spectacular and the quotidian performances of queer antagonistic rhetoric and its attendant violence. Confused through conflation is the idea that the occasion, which is another way to say the event, of speaking against such antagonism is conspiring with, is allyship of, the force of queer possibility. But, as Saidiya Hartman so deftly taught and continues to teach, attending to the spectacular performances of the event misses the quotidian and mundane performances of a general antagonism, of which a displacement thesis of loneliness might serve as, for blackqueer people, tear-inducing evidence.There are, in other words, no natural allyships, there are no natural comrades, but each relation is possible through engaged, sustained labor, each is sustained by remaining committed to each other. It is not enough that folks don’t think queer possibility is any longer ugly, what is necessary is contending with the desire to evaluate and analyze and judge if something is or is not ugly – which is to say doctrinally sound, theologically correct – in the first place.

#FreeBresha: Anti-black Racism and Anethical Blackness

**The following brief notes were delivered at the Anti-blackness and Christian Ethics Roundtable at Boston College, September 14, 2016. I reproduce the remarks here, particularly, to be in solidarity with Bresha Meadows and to urge against her ongoing incarceration. If you would like to learn more about Bresha Meadows, click here and here. May we all pursue justice.** 

Three Things.           

ONE

August 8, 2016, The Gospel Coalition website published a blog post titled “When God Sends Your White Daughter a Black Husband,” written by a white woman, Gaye Clarke. The piece began:

For years I prayed for a young man I had yet to meet: my daughter’s husband. I asked the Lord to make him godly, kind, a great dad, and a good provider. I was proud of a wish list void of unrealistic expectations. After all, I knew not to ask for a college football quarterback who loved puppies, majored in nuclear rocket science, and wanted to take his expertise to the mission field. I was an open-minded mom.But God called my bluff.This white, 53-year-old mother hadn’t counted on God sending an African American with dreads named Glenn.

She continued:

It wasn’t long ago that interracial marriage—particularly a black man like Glenn marrying a white girl like Anna—was considered the ultimate taboo in American white society…Though I never shared this prejudice, I never expected the issue to enter my life.

Bresha Meadows

Bresha Meadows

The entire piece is cringe worthy. There was lots said on social media, particularly Twitter – a website I frequent – that had lots of commentary, jokes, memes and criticisms of the writing and the theological-philosophical thrust undergirding Clarke’s desires, both before and after Glenn. After a brief description of her daughter’s love for her Glenn, Clarke gives eight suggestions for white parents that do not expect their daughters to engage interracial relationships and marriage.The first suggestion was to “Remember your theology,” and when explained, Clarke included that the theology to remember is about creation, that we are all descendants of Adam and Eve. What this meant, in practical terms for Clarke, is that, “Glenn moved from being a black man to beloved son when I saw his true identity as an image bearer of God, a brother in Christ, and a fellow heir to God’s promises.”

This movement from black man to beloved son is not a little bit problematic. For Clarke to see Glenn’s worth and value, his blackness had to be erased, had to be liquidated, had to be transformed into an acceptable modality through which love could occur. His true identity was not his blackness but his commitment to Christ; this is what bell hooks describes as white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, it is an ordering of flesh through racialization. It was not Clarke’s daughter that needs to move from white woman to beloved daughter; it is the person racialized as Other. As if whiteness itself is not also a racialization, the racialization of the modern world. This desire to move from black man to beloved son and for that to be the true identity of the black is supercessionist logic. But supersessionism is a core value of modern problems of racialization, the creation and maintenance of purity through whiteness and vulgarization through blackness. The only zone wherein this move could be effectuated is not the material world but the spiritual, invisible, intangible one of salvific condition. So police brutality, systemic and structural inequity, antiblack racism are then the problem of individuals not living into the cause of Christ rightly, are not allowing their lives to be moved from blackness to beloveds.

Of note to me is the way it is the white parents that should be surprised, that they have to change their thinking in order to be accepting. And not because changing one’s thinking isn’t a good thing but because with Clarke’s framing, what she calls on white parents to do is to allow black people entry into their fold. But this entry is conditioned upon the movement from blackness to beloved, from racialized problem to true identification in Christ. I don’t want to pick on Gaye Clarke. I am sure she had the best of intentions. But as Imani Perry offers, we are in a moment of post-intentional racism, and so Clarke’s intentions, ultimately, are not important. Rather, I want to offer that this short blog is an example of a much longer history of the figuration of blackness as completely non-convergent with Christianity in the west because Christianity in the west is fundamentally about articulating whiteness, or a relation to whiteness. Such that for non-whites to be or become Christian is to trade out blackness.Christians often presume that salvation, life in Christ, takes away racial distinction. We can look to Paul asserting that there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male or female but because of salvation, all are one. My research is primarily in Blackpentecostalism and Gaye Clarke’s explication of what white parents should do in the case of possible interracial marriage is not disconnected from the early twentieth century Pentecostal movement’s figuration of race and racism, and its relation to salvation. So here, I’m thinking about Frank Bartleman, an important figure in early twentieth century Pentecostalism, arguing that the color line had been washed away in the blood of Jesus. The line that was popularized, though not created, by WEB Du Bois, the color line, according to Bartleman, was no longer a problem because of the performance of the flesh at the Azusa Street Revival. But this, of course, was never the case. Members of the Ku Klux Klan began pressuring white congregants of the Azusa Revival, causing what would eventually be splits from several organizations. For example, from the Church of God in Christ – a predominantly Blackpentecostal organization – emerged the Assemblies of God.

There is a misapplication of modern racialization to ancient text in order to enact a post-racial fantasy, a fantasy that leaves intact the hierarchal inequities in the service of Christian witness. In Bartleman’s case, it is important to note that the black people of the early twentieth century Pentecostal movement simply did not see the color line as inconsequential because of speaking in tongues, that they detected the way racialization was occurring on the wooden floors and in between the pews soon after Spirit baptism became a prominent feature of the movement. William Seymour, founder of the Azusa Street Mission, eventually disallowed white leadership after the beginning years of the Revival because he was worried about the ways whiteness remained uninterrogated, how whiteness was, in the name of Spirit baptism, the production and proliferation of antiblack racism.           

TWO

Mary. In Blackpentecostalism, it is rare to talk about Mary. In other traditions, she is much more fleshed out, so to speak. But from within Blackpentecostalism, she is often described as a “poor, unknown, uneducated Palestinian woman” and that God’s choice for her to be the theotokos, to carry the logos, the word, to hold the child in womb through gestation, is praiseworthy. Isn’t it great, they say, that God used this poor, unknown, uneducated woman, that God used this Palestinian woman who had no renown, who was not royalty, to bring for Jesus. It is said that through God, Mary transcends the categorization of social victimization, that she transcends the categorization of degradation, that she transcends the categorization of stigmatization because of the sovereignty of the deity.

And this began to bother me deeply. Because what is assumed about Mary is what we assume Mary must have believed about herself in order to glory in the fact of her being chosen. Such declarations have to assume the valuelessness of the persons in question as the grounds from which to make assertions about the choices of deities. That is, we have to believe that Mary believed her station in life was valueless, that she was without virtue or honor, in order for the narratives we tell about her to make sense, in order for the theology and philosophy of Mary as chosen to cohere. We do not think with Mary but our thinking is supersessionist, it supersedes the very possibility for Mary to think herself valued without being chosen, without Mary being harnessed and used as the anchoring point for our theological-philosophical projects. None of the markers ascribed to Mary in this normative narrativity are, in and of themselves, markers of valuelessness. It cannot be assumed, in other words, that Mary internalized the inequity of a political economy as a personal moral failure such that only after such an internalization could she glory in the fact of her being chosen.

And this is the key for me: I think this is so precisely because I keep thinking with the ways blackness is narrativized in various modalities: from the juridical to the medical, from popular culture to the interpersonal. It is what I think about as paternalistic benevolence, a narrativizing occurring from the position of the ones that have been Othered in order to declare the relative value or valuelessness of said Others. This is what Gaye Clarke performed in her writing, implying that Glenn could not be valued or think himself of worth until his transformation from black man to beloved through Christ.Blackness in western theological-philosophical discourse is the antithesis of the holy, the sacred, the set apart, the hallowed. Blackness is narrativized as the bestial, as the burdened, as the problem for purity. Blackness is the wretched, the worm, the worrisome station. But this from the position that assumed – attempted to grasp and hold, to harness and abuse – black flesh, this from the position of whiteness. Black performance, however, illustrates the ways that such narrativity is always in the service of the propping up of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, not its undoing.

And we see this with sharp intensity and focus with Black Lives Matter protests; with the demands for the abolition from police, the carceral state, the end of the Prison Industrial Complex; we detect this refusal of narrativity with the solidarity work between Indigenous people fighting the Dakota Access Pipeline or between Palestinians and the Movement for Black Lives; and we detect this refusal of narrativity in the protests of NFL players, Colin Kaepernick as an explicit example. The stories told about us, in other words, we do not have to internalize. And the ways we inhabit the world are often against such narrativity. This refused narrativity, the refusal to accept the narrative of whiteness, of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, the refusal to assent to anti-black racism and its contents is what I think of as a non-ethical or an-ethical project.           

THREE

Bresha Meadows’s father, Jonathan, was abusive to her mother, Brandi. He was verbally and physically abusive to Brandi, and emotionally and psychologically manipulative. Jonathan was also emotionally and manipulatively abusive to the children, Bresha inclusive. They existed under the rule of thread and terrorism and Bresha sought relief from the constant barrage of violence and violation in the home. She decided to kill her father. Bresha was arrested for murder though there are calls from social justice activists for her release. Brandi Meadows calls Bresha a hero, giving her and her family the space to breathe again with ease and comfort.

Jamall Calloway says the following: “instead of criminal charges, what Bresha Meadows needs now, desperately, as opposed to incarceration, is productive psychological counseling and treatment for severe post-traumatic stress. Bresha (and her family) need psychological attention and help, not a conviction from the courts. In fact, it is the courts, it is our law and authorities who need convicting for such a callous response to this ordeal and every ordeal like it.”

But how can one come to such a conclusion? I think it is because what Bresha’s actions did is obliterate the question of the ethical in ways that are consistent with how blackness exists as a critique of the terrain of the ethical, of ethical being. Frederick Douglass is famous to have delivered the speech, “What to the slave is the fourth of July?” What Douglass was interrogating was the ethical terrain upon which celebration of warfare and liberation emerges since the emergence of such celebration and warfare was produced through the violent exclusion – through brutality – of black people. Another way to ask the question Douglass lodged, the animating force of black performance, is what, to the target of antiblack racism, is ethical responsibility, what – to the target of gendered, racialized, classed, sexed violence and violation – is ethics itself?To appraise Bresha’s behaviors through the normative rules and regulations of the juridical is to assume a normative ethics. But what I detect is that Bresha enacted the critique of ethics, she enacted a non-ethics, an an­ethical performance. And I consider antiblackness and Christian ethics through a similar thinking, through a similar sorta analytics, that asks first what is the relation of blackness to ethics, and blackness to Christianity, such that we can have something along the line of an ethics, a black Christian ethics that responds to, and anticipates, antiblack racism. And I think to get there is to think more with renouncing the terrain of the ethical because such a terrain is produced through the exclusion of what Denise Ferreira da Silva calls the others of Europe. Perhaps we are after a mode of thinking equity and justice from the position of the excluded.**

In the filmic version of The Color Purple, Celie said: “I’m poor, black; I may even be ugly. But dear god, I’m here!” And with that, she rode off with friends into the sunset and away from the man that abused her. Celie did not need to be chosen or shown favor because at that instance, she refused to internalize what the world said about her, about her capacity for life. It was the declaration of being “here” – which is to say, existing, breathing – that was of radical importance. Her being here is what distressed Albert, it’s what distressed and disturbed him because he spent so much time and energy wanting to disallow the possibility for such a declaration. To riff on my friend Fred Moten, the consent to being shamed she could not resist she could still, importantly, withhold. Withhold, withheld, as in breath, as in the possibility for existence, as in life.

#BlackpentecostalBreath: The Aesthetics of Possibility is Now Available

Blackpentecostal Breath: The Aesthetics of Possibility

Blackpentecostal Breath: The Aesthetics of Possibility

"In this profoundly innovative book, Ashon T. Crawley engages a wide range of critical paradigms from black studies, queer theory, and sound studies to theology, continental philosophy, and performance studies to theorize the ways in which alternative or 'otherwise' modes of existence can serve as disruptions against the marginalization of and violence against minoritarian lifeworlds and possibilities for flourishing. Examining the whooping, shouting, noise-making, and speaking in tongues of Black Pentecostalism--a multi-racial, multi-class, multi-national Christian sect with one strand of its modern genesis in 1906 Los Angeles--Blackpentecostal Breath reveals how these aesthetic practices allow for the emergence of alternative modes of social organization. As Crawley deftly reveals, these choreographic, sonic, and visual practices and the sensual experiences they create are not only important for imagining what Crawley identifies as 'otherwise worlds of possibility,' they also yield a general hermeneutics, a methodology for reading culture in an era when such expressions are increasingly under siege."

You can get it at:

#NotYourMule Thoughts

[this is a really brief note, some ideas, that i've been thinking about for some time. i'm not interested in it being right nor wrong as much as i'm after a way to think about things.]

 

I think organizing against the current and pernicious systems of domination cannot have us saying that race belongs to us in any sorta easy way. [I have not talked about this publicly but] one of the things that fascinated me about Rachel Doležal last year was how quickly and intensely ideas about blackness and whiteness were resolved in the biological in ways that were just really confusing to me. I think a lot was unsettled about seemingly settled concepts of race and racialization. This was seen, for example, in the memes that jokingly "questioned" light skinned black people, saying they were now - because of RD - "suspect," that their blackness was under interrogation. It was so quick and easy and intense for things to turn into old concepts regarding race, color and authentic black flesh. I learned a great deal about how - or, really, had the idea confirmed and verified that - many consider blackness to be defined by the history of violence that has happened to black people, that the history of middle passage, enslavement, jim crow and mass incarceration themselves are the bounds, the borders of blackness. If you and your ancestry did not experience "it," then you are are not black. That is simply not what I think creates blackness at all, I do not think that violent encounter is the determining factor. (I'm also tryna think a lot more about what it means to do blackness rather than possess it and I've been thinking about this for some time now; I've been thinking with James Cone, for example, when he opines in his theological writings that the white church must become black; I'm thinking of blackness as abolition, indigeneity as decolonial and, as such, not an identity but a modality of existence.)

Anyway, the RD affair last year really made me wary because it seems to me to be a problem to use violence - or the capacity to have violence visited upon you - because we all, not all, experience the same violence. Think, for example, of the violence that black transwomen experience as a particular instance. Using violence as a method for thinking our relation to one another in order to contend against white supremacist capitalist patriarchy (WSCP) is a serious delimitation that just as often is broken down by tautology. (Palestinians have the same teargas thrown at them as black people had in Ferguson; what does the "same vilolence" mean in such a world where weapons manufactured for use over there are used domestically? What does it mean that violence - in the form of surveillance, infiltration, incarceration, terrorism, murder - visited upon the Black Panther Party for Self Defense became the architecture for future projects of surveillance, infiltration, incarceration, terrorism, murder both domestically and abroad?) We have to find other methods for thinking our relation to one another.

And because of the need for other methods that do not rely on the well worn tropes of racialism, I was in awe - but totally unsurprised - by the #NotYourMule conversations happening since Sunday night. I was in awe and saddened because, really, lots of the conversation appears to reproduce the logic of racial hierarchy as a given, as a good. How is it given and good? Well, we know that WSCP creates for us a hierarchy along the bias of white-black binary logic and folks that are "not" either of the two (and really, no one is, but...) have to figure a relation to race within the binary. WSCP is a settler colonial logic that necessitates property as private. That's what it is and does. So to presume that race belongs to us as a form of property, as a good, only harnesses the current ordering of knowledge regarding race, it does not fundamentally disrupt that logic.

How, then, is this a good? It is a good because we constantly have to name our relation to what is presumed to create the binary logic: violence. And so violence becomes the thing that people constantly rely on to assert the coherence of a racial-gendered-sexed-classed group, violence rhetorical and physical, violence symbolic and material. Violence becomes property. It's all about violence that has been done to a group, or the possibility of violence - that makes a group. (Think, for example, of middle passage; and though middle passage may have been the occasion to create affinity and group resistance, it did not create blackness.) So the logic of racial hierarchy is produced as a good when it can disallow critical engagement. Of course (and this is not a sorta vulgar, discardable, non-serious "of course" either), antiblackness happens and we must be attuned to not reproduce the logic of such violence. But the charge of antiblackness should not itself become a kind of property of which certain people can own and exchange and trade as a means to thwart engagement altogether.

So Chris Rock. He was not protesting and his monologue was fully terrible. The jokes were misplaced aggression full of sexism, ahistoricism and ridiculously unfounded parallelism. But let us also be clear: his work on the stage was not a protest but a paycheck. Chris Rock is not, nor should he be, a mule for others to build platforms for racial justice. But we must acknowledge that he was not doing justice work; it was flagrantly sexist and misogynoiristic and hyper capitalist, all for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Watching #NotYourMule was intriguing because it missed the fact of Rock's labor for the Academy, labor that summarily dismissed Jada Pinkett-Smith, victims of lynching racial violence and current struggles for justice against police violence. Perhaps not a mule, then, but what will we call such exploitive labor and the celebration of it?

Deformation, Information, On Formation

beyformation

beyformation

Noise matters. Ever tried to have a conversation on a phone with poor reception, snaps, crackles and pops interrupting your ability to hear? It’s a Wednesday and you're waiting for a friend to arrive. This friend is on a train or a subway or bus. And each time you almost hear there was perhaps an incident. But you are unsure because the noise made itself intensely felt in the conversation, it announced itself as a deformation to smooth conversation. So it is this Wednesday, or that other one - no matter, really - but the noise frustrates. Such frustration is the matter, the material, of conversation. So you end up hearing your phone partner - or perhaps it is you that is saying it - "Can you hear me? Hello! Are you there?"Noise matters. The conversation between friends or lovers or business partners on this or that Wednesday has to be about the noise, about the antagonism in order to have clarity. Noise interrupts flow. So the conversation ends up being about the interruptive. Once clarity gained, once signal clear, “Oh, I didn’t hear you." "Repeat what you said." "I was going through a tunnel." "You were muffled" "I couldn’t hear.” Noise. I have been thinking about noise a lot lately, its texture and weight, its meaning for black performance in churches, on film, across stages. There is noise. Like D'angelo's "The Line," in which Dino Palladrino keeps the same bass line throughout the entire song except for moment 4’52” with a noticeable alternation, noise is that which seems most off but can perhaps be the foundation that transforms everything that comes before and after it.

So yes, there is noise in Beyoncé’s latest offering “Formation.” And such noise matters. It is noise that begs our attention. It is a Saturday and someone posted a link to a internet breaking video. There is praise and joy and thinkpieces and laughter. But at my viewing, there is also noise.Look at the brilliant energy Beyoncé caused to erupt since the weekend of February 6, 2016. An energy brilliant and bright that has within it the possibility for transformation. I seriously did not want to write about Beyoncé mostly because I already have. I think the furor and intensity of the responses compel us all to think. And I believe deeply in the pleasure and joy that emanates from her work and that people find within it. As a cisgay black dude, one that misses going to No Parking and Secret and Escuelita in New York now that I’m a Los Angeles resident, I know the transformative power of the beat drop with a Beyoncé song. Don’t let the bass lick of “Deja Vu” slide in the middle of a set, don’t let “drop down low, sweep the floor with it” be rehearsed publicly. Life will be got and that’s all good. So I'm all about joy and pleasure and being happy and free. And the way Black women’s joy and pleasure has been scrutinized and sanitized and made almost impossible – certainly always criticized and problematized and dismissed and discarded – in this writing about “Formation” I want to say up front that I am in favor of pleasure and joy. It is what I write about and research generally.

But joy and pleasure do not emerge ex nihilo, which is why we have to be extremely intentional about what we praise and why. At first I thought it unfair to analyze the video because right wing folks are ridiculous. This engagement is just not that. They dismiss Beyoncé because they are terrible. But because "Formation" aspires toward radicalism, Beyoncé and team invite us to critically engage it. Her continued movements within the currents and flows of the conversation, the necessary and urgent noise making, of black feminisms, womanist thought and the Black Radical Tradition, it seems to me, begs us to engage her on the terrain upon which she stands.

The berets at the super bowl, the faux black panther outfits? The afros and pumped fists? We are called upon by the production of “Formation” itself as something revolutionary and radical, which means it should be held to such a standard. Holding it to such a standard does not presume that any of us stands there, has achieved there, because "there" is not a space to obtain or possess but a movement, a flow – like the gathering of waters – in whose currents we must maneuver. And it seems to me to be the case that the refusal to engage and interrogate the class politics of the video – a class politics that shows up through consumerism, materialism and benevolent capitalism – emerges out of a belief that she can't handle the conversation, that it is too difficult.I want to talk about and think through the openings created and the delimitations of dancing and singing over consumerist class culture that makes the noise of a desired “Black Bill Gates” and “the best revenge is getting paper” audible. These two statements are seeming aberrations, they are noise that needs cancelation - so far, it seems, unfortunately through refusing to engage it - that we need to feel its vibration in and on and through us. It is a noise that the lyricism of “Formation” couldn't leave alone, Beyoncé had to get it out. And since it was offered to us, let us consider it.

Let's take seriously all of our capacities to think...considering the possibilities and limitations of consumerism, materialism and capitalism are not mere academic worries or trifles. The water crisis in Flint, the school crisis in Detroit and Philadelphia and Atlanta, the policing crisis nationwide, the suffering of black, brown, indigenous, poor worldwide, are not disconnected from representation and images. We cannot on the one hand desire to say that the cultural production - always an endeavor, intellectual - is important for thinking with then balk at the occasion for thinking if it entails pushback or disagreement or dissent. That to ask, or to offer really, that perhaps many of us don’t believe in Beyoncé’s intellectual capacity when she herself makes clear that she wants to be taken seriously on the grounds of her aesthetic projects – her dance formations and sartorial choices and lyricism – as practices of the intellect. Can we be joyful about the lyrics that praise Jackson 5 noses, the dual register and play of “baby hair” in its Black English Vernacular force only to dismiss the lyrics that praise unabashed, unfettered capitalist consumption? They exist within the same delimitation, within the same song. We can deal with the complexity, the contradiction. And it seems we have been invited to converse about such complexity and contradiction because the visually stunning images and bass line were offered to us for our engagement.

There is noise. The noise of the desire for a Black Bill Gates, for revenge being best served as getting paper – and paper could be degrees, sure, but also monetary – presents for us a disjoint and disjuncture. The disjoint between image and sound would be cool because black performance is always more than double, is always irreducibly plural. Black performance occurs on multiple registers, is multimodal, arrhythmic, polyrhythmic. Like the young folks say, there’s levels to this shit. But what when rather than an intentional disjoint and disjunction, one desired coherence, one desired consistency? What when one does not imagine that messages about capitalist consumption as a moral good is inconsistent with a message about loving your black flesh, your baby hair and your baby hair?

**

Sometimes I like Paul. You know Paul, the Apostle, the one that told slaves to obey their masters, the Paul that said in his flesh was no good thing. But he said more. I do dig the fact that he did say, "be not conformed to this world but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind." And I like that he said that he lived his life in such a way that caused him to write that we should continue to move towards – what I will say here is – justice, equity. He said it was not that as though he had already attained that which he sought but that he would relinquish those things that had hindered him in times past and would continue, and would press toward the mark in the cause of justice. So I like Paul not for what he at all times said. There was noise that inflect how he should be heard, that should compel us to think about his contradictions. Through attention to those contradictions we can know that none of us is exempt and each must be diligent to contend against injustice. I like Paul because in him one really gets a sense that he was trying to figure out how to do justice in his world.

So with the release of “Formation” has been a very intense response from all kinds of people. Twitter was aflutter and Facebook debates have caused rifts between friends and strangers. One thing said about Beyoncé in defense of her is "it's never enough!" And what is meant by that is some of us want to continually criticize and analyze and scrutinize what she does. But it seems to me to be the case that, yes, for those of us concerned with justice, "it" never is enough. Nor should it be. And I think the perniciousness of the inequity of the economy is discounted when it's said that "Formation" is just a video, that it is not that deep. Because it is more than a video: it provided jobs to workers in the film and music industries, it is an advertisement for merchandise on her website and for her upcoming tour, it is what colonial states like Israel will use as cultural capital to justify their existence against Palestinian life.

So we do not have the luxury for time off. We have to push each other. Yet as anyone versed in black feminism and womanist thought would know, critique is not neutral and has a context of emergence. So the critique, the pressure and weight to be anti-capitalist, decolonial, anti-imperialist, a prison abolitionist, against privatized education should not befall as the burden of the individual. So insofar as we want to have more than simply a conversation about the political economy but an interrogation of it that is produced through and produces inequity, it is not the burden of the individual.

I work for a university. Universities are currently bastions of neoliberal theory and practice. What I mean is that universities are privatizing education, exploiting local and state resources, are primary exponents of displacement of financially poor communities. Universities currently seem to be more interested in private wealth management and real estate building projects than they are about the work of education, especially teaching and education for the cause of justice, in the cause of alleviating the suffering of people in the world. Lots of universities have senior administration from banking and military industries, folks that have little vested interest in the production of truth and making a more just society. That to say I work within an institutional practice that produces and is produced by racial capitalism, that digs its heels into the privatizing of public resources, an institution that promotes inequity under the guise of multiculturalism and diversity. There is a reason why universities and colleges have pamphlets of smiling young folks of different racial and ethnic backgrounds. Under the guise of diversity and multiculturalism is the fact of the political economy of inequity.

Yet, I must press. My colleagues must press. We all press. We cannot be comfortable. We have to figure out ways to inhabit these spaces while pressing for justice. This is an ethical demand that gurantees discomfort and to be a challenge. And the call to press is not just made to celebrities but to us all. We all share the load. We all have to speak forcefully against capitalism and the way the political economy moralizes against the poor and working class.I wonder who celebrities are to us, why we invest so much time and energy into their worlds. I understand being moved by music, a play, the sound of a sermon, a guitar lick, a drum solo, a textured voice. I understand being moved by the dynamism of a Jordan dunk, the gravity of a Nina Simone arpeggio, the weight and texture of a Kim Burrell riff, the joy and frivolity of a Cam dab, the lightness and sweetness of Whitney’s timbre. But at times we invest something terribly overwrought in these figures which disfigures them - many lament having to be everything for everyone - and disfigures us in kind. Such investment is largely about the ways they come to be powerful, and this within a political economy of inequity. Such investment is largely about what they have attained financially, about their capacity for benevolence because of such acquisition, about gettin’ that paper.

Being a Black Bill Gates, getting paper all, on face value, seem to be ok. But is revenge what we most desire? Is choreographic reversal – wherein the police have their hands up – most desired? That is perhaps true for some of us. But that is not the force of one strain of the Black Radical Tradition. How does one get paper in a fundamentally inequitable economy? And though some argue that one has to attain wealth to speak truthfully, to produce revolution, I fear a misunderstanding of the tradition. Do we wanna rearrange the pieces on the board or blow up the game altogether?

We are all drowning. We need a way out, a way of escape. This isn’t a demand for a politics of purity but for pressing. Pressing each and all of us forces us all to consider how our complicity to the workings of the political economy is demanded of us in order to live. We have to be able to imagine that we can do and live and be otherwise than through the organization of wealth as is the status quo, through the organization of resources through inequity. We cannot let the fact that each of us has our complicity demanded of us be a reason to disengage from the necessity of critical analysis and, hopefully, a lot of imagining and in such imagining, bringing into being otherwise possibilities. We who are abolitionists come from a tradition, a rich and long tradition, wherein liberation was not conferred by Lincoln or others. The enslaved in the United States emancipated themselves through a general strike. We come from that tradition, one that saw the necessity of thinking and living and imagining otherwise.

We are contending against nothing short of empire and its rapacious violence. It is good and right and ethical to ask of Beyoncé to boycott her upcoming performances in Tel Aviv to stand in solidarity with Palestinians who are victim of ongoing violent occupation. It is good and right and ethical to ask Beyoncé to think more about the violence that grounds capitalism, the sorta violence and violation that produces the wealth of a Bill Gates and the violence of benevolent capitalism that is the Gates Foundation. The Gates Foundation is responsible for pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into the privatization of public education, a process that has dispossessed lots of black women teachers, lots of students from neighborhood schools and, yes, lots of black, brown and indigenous people from neighborhoods. It seems our imaginations have become constrained by the political economy, by the current order of things, the contemporary neoliberal organization of knowledge.Think, for example, of schools in Pennsylvania and New Orleans. There have been huge disinvestments in local and state funds for public education, contributing to the crumbling of buildings, the breakup of teacher unions, the lack of capital investment for the futures of black, brown, indigenous, poor educational possibilities. After such disinvestment, the promise of state of the art facilities and teachers that can train students from programs like Teach for America, this after the disinvestment and disenfranchisement. Only after disinvestment is the possibility for profit, which prompts certain organizations to show so-called care and concern. This care and concern obtains only because there is a profit to be made by those that have been marginalized because of the political economy.

And consider the city of Cleveland filing a claim against Tamir Rice's estate for $500. That is not a lot of money for a city at all. So let me opine: it's not about the money at all, it's not about the desire to further humiliate, to further demonstrate power, to further cause the family turmoil. The city could sue for $1 or $10 or $100K and I suspect the reasoning behind it would be the same. Yes, the claim is about the ambulance ride for Tamir. But the state murdered Tamir through an incompetent officer then lied about the event. This lawsuit is legal but is it ethical? The lawsuit is the demonstration of the ways the political economy conspires with the law to produce unethical behavior, to produce violence. So perhaps getting paper, perhaps benevolent capitalism, is not what we need to alleviate suffering. We really need a way out, a way otherwise.

There is no, there cannot ever be, a revolutionary nor radical capitalism. The system of economics is fundamentally exploitive. We have to attend to the alleviation of suffering. It is our task.How to speak to and against these disinvestments that have ruptured the lives of black, brown, indigenous, working class life? How to speak to and against it in the cause of justice? This is demanded of us. That the black political elite have been at the helm of the privatized education movement should not deter us from speaking truthfully. We cannot allow the articulation of our marginalization to allow us to have a neoliberal political horizon, one of profitability and convenience. Is this not what we learn from black feminists pressing against black patriarchy and misogynoir, against those that would marginalize black women from leadership positions and organizing because they are women? Is this not what we learn from black queer folks pressing against the heteronormative impulses that serve as the basis for much rhetoric regarding black community and its disruption of family through racial capital, Middle Passage, enslavement? We learn, in other words, that we who believe in freedom cannot rest because freedom is not a place but a practice, liberation is not something we can possess but only something in which we participate. We can never be satisfied, we can never obtain, we have to keep living and being and striving to do otherwise.

**

It’s ok to have pleasure. And this is not me giving permission because, seriously, I am in no position to give or withhold. And as homie would say, who are me to judge? That is, it is not within my purview nor desire to make a claim on pleasure as a possibility. I write lovingly about my upbringing in the Blackpentecostal church, and this though I know and speak passionately and explicitly against its sexism, homophobia, classism and militarism and desires for empire. In each object is the capacity for multiplicity and sometimes what is in the object is the antidote, the corrective, to the way it can oppress and marginalize.So it appears to me that the desire to policitize “Formation” as a sort of pure performance or as one that can only be analyzed on some of what it gives, does the work of placing the pleasure gained from it in the zone of the political. Pure insofar as class becomes a category that is not under scrutiny nor is it analyzed. This placement into the zone of the political can occur because of the assumption that the political and the pleasurable are distinct categories that only sometimes criss-cross. The will to make Beyoncé malleable through placing her into already predetermined political projects simply instrumentalizes her as an object for our political theorizing, an instrumentalizing that is used in the service – rather than the disruption – of the neoliberal making of herself into a private, consumable product, good and service. And there is also the disappearance made audible through voices with flesh that is never seen. Queer presence is heard but not seen. It is not a disembodied experience but a removal of the flesh, a defleshing. Isn't the defleshing of queerness on screen similar to a normative longing that produce resistance against, for example, queer folks leading in Black Lives Matter protests? That we should be seen but not heard or heard - that is, showing up - but not seen? It seems to me to be the case that we are afraid of being moved by aesthetics, that we cannot rest with the way she says – dual frequency – “baby hair” – with the color palette, with the dance formations. And it seems we cannot rest there because we think aesthetics lack intellectual content, that aesthetics are not a collective intellectual practice. So we force the pleasure and aesthetics into an already predetermined political project. And because we are radical and enjoy the content then, yes, the content itself must be radical too.

Perhaps it aspires towards such a radicalism, perhaps it moves towards it. And in that, we should celebrate. But there is more required of us all, yes. The reversal isn't what we desire but a dismantling of the capacity to compel us to raise hands. Because, and this is also key, police are also exploited by the state though producing violence for it. We are all drowning.The people called black demonstrate that blackness is an orientation, a way of life. Black people are insofar as the flesh is performance. This performance is decolonial and abolitionist as its ground of being. Blackness cannot be possessed because it is not, but is the antagonism to, property. And, attendant to this, radical and revolutionary are not identities one can claim. Rather, radical and revolutionary are ways to be in the world, are orientations, are dispossessive in how such ways of life compel us to interrogation and reflection and collective, improvisational organizing. None of us is radical nor revolutionary. Rather, what we do can contribute to or take away from the work of radicalism and revolution. We can put our hands to the plow or take them off. But the work must, will, continue.The work of radicalism and revolution, currents and flows of the work, need us all, we all can and need to participate. These ways of life are not possessive and aren’t property. Rather, people that have come in its name – people in the Black Radical Tradition, for example – enact the tradition rather than identify as the tradition. So, sure, some of us may not get every cue and marker in “Formation” immediately but that just impresses upon us the necessity for community and study as a way to think together. That we do not get the cues does not mean something is not for us, not if those things are made available to us, to the world.

The context of emergence of our practices, given the white supremacist capitalist patriarchal ordering of the world, should force us to be diligent to act against it. That ordering is violent. I always wonder what we would do, say, wear, how we would behave, in absence of that ordering, in absence of that violence. So the celebration of identity, one's race, ethnicity, gender, religion, of itself isn't a radical or revolutionary thing. And that's true even if you are from a historically and contemporarily marginalized group. The question, the challenge, is this: how does this celebration contribute to the work of justice and equity, to the alleviating of suffering?Noise matters. So perhaps we can ask in that ways does “Formation” prompt the imaginations of some to live more deliberately in such a way that does justice against inequity and violence. And we can ask while also experiencing the materiality of the noise, the noise we must engage and through engagement use as a platform for seeking to think and do and be otherwise. Because otherwise is possible. And that’s the beauty of and the dissent about the video: that it opens a space of articulation for imagination and collective thought.

Against Islamophobia (A Black Christian* Response)

Silence will not protect...

There are times of laughter and frivolity. There are times of tears and melancholy. But these are not those times, or not those times only. These times demand that we stand up for what is good and right and just. The times, our times, are indeed urgent. We cannot sit idly by as brothers and sisters, cousins, aunts and uncles — kith and kin alike — are beholden to all forms of violence. Not in our names. There is no one way to be, perform nor live out Christianity. There are conservative, moderate and liberal Christianities, there are apocalyptic eschatologies and agnostic ideologies. Christianity varies, has texture and weight, has difference internal to its logic. We speak desiring a modality of Christianity to be heard that is restive, that is resistant, to Islamophobia as against our ethical and moral worldview. Though we identify as Christian (*or have deep roots in Christian traditions), which informs the ways we exist, which informs our pursuit of justice, we will not allow Islamophobia to be perpetuated in the name of Christians, particularly Black Christians and those of us with deep roots from within — even if we have left — this tradition. Targets of Islamophobia are kith and kin alike. But even if they were not, what is good and right and just is to demand that Islamophobia, fear mongering that targets Muslims and Islam, cease with certain swiftness.

What is Islamophobia?

Islamophobia is fear, hatred and prejudice as the precursor to the proliferation of violence against people that identify as — or are perceived to be — Muslim, and against the religion of Islam itself. Islamophobia precipitates violence and violation based not in truth nor justice but in a politics of difference, in a politics that assumes difference is likewise deficiency. Islamophobia allows for Islam and for people that are, or are perceived to be, Muslim to be stereotyped as inherently violent, as inherently anti-woman (we do not say anti-feminist, since many promoting fear of Islam and its adherents are also against feminisms in their many varieties), as inherently against technological, philosophical and moral progress. Islam and Muslims are figured, through the political economic imagination, as a thwarting to the flourishing of Western civil society. Islamophobia includes a range of attitudes and behaviors that target Islam and those believed to be Muslim as in need of remediation. It is important to note that through the public discourse, Islam and those perceived to be Muslims are racialized as different, as deficient. That is, Islamophobia cannot but share in the general Western tendency to identity difference-as-deficit, and such deficit as deficiency is always part of the project of racial logic.

Islamophobia targets those that are are, or are perceived to be Muslim, and women are very often the victims of such violence because of the religious practices of covering, because of the apparentness of religious conviction worn on the flesh. In a world that targets flesh based on real or perceived race, on ethnic and religious background, it is important to stand against Islamophobia as it shares in a general targeting of difference worn on and as the flesh. As such, standing against Islamophobia is a feminist, Black feminist, womanist and Black queer theoretical and material practice, it is a feminist, Black feminist, womanist and Black queer ethical charge of which those committed to justice must take up.  

Why do we care?

This summer, Muslims lead a campaign to raise money for Black churches that experienced arson at the hands of racist ideology and white supremacist thinking, they demonstrated a commitment to justice that modeled for us what it means to live out one’s conviction and practice of justice in the flesh, as a way of life. The raising of money for Black churches was not necessarily about shared theologies and worship practices but about constituting a way of life that honors the personhood of all, that honors all without regard to theologies and worship practices. Such living out is a model and must be returned. One cannot be content with the current political moment. Calls from Christian university presidents, from politicians, and from “ordinary Americans” have allowed us to listen into the ways Islam and Muslims are becoming the scapegoat for a range of political behaviors that produce violence globally. It is time, it seems, to really live out the ethics of the Christian Testament’s “Good Samaritan,” it is time to step up and support those that are being targeted by the pernicious evils of the political economy, an uncontrolled white heterosexist capitalist patriarchy run amok that has as its grounding violence against difference.

We do not have to wonder how violence, of Nazism or Middle Passage as examples, occurs. We look at Donald Trump and we laugh and think it’s all a joke while his words are used as fuel for violence. People listening and responding favorably to such messages of violence do so because they are gravely afraid of losing their so-called “culture,” because of the blacks and the latinx and the indigenous and the gays and the the trans* and the muslims and the feminists. People listen to such messages of violence and respond in kind because the messages name the anger felt towards a political economy but place, wrongfully so, on the ones that are most marginalized by the political economy. It is this that we resist, that we stand against.

This is no mere call for interfaith dialogue that leaves intact structural inequity. This is not a call for  crass multiculturalism that does not get to the root of structural inequity and violence. This is not a call to hold hands and sing as the end goal, though holding hands and singing together celebrates the flesh of one another as worthy of being touched, held, loved. Rather, this is a call for a direct confrontation with the evils of xenophobia, racism and violent cultural nationalism that produces violence against those our political economy, with mainstream media as its agent, choose to misunderstand and misrepresent. This is a call to seek and do justice as a way of life, celebrating that our differences do not have to separate us but can present otherwise possibilities for organizing, for being with each other in way to, together, confront the evils of this world. Our Black Muslim kith and kin modeled for us what that kind of love looks like in the face of adversity. And the love and concern shown emerges from a religious commitment and feeling not dissimilar to a Christian commitment and feeling. Such love and concern is not about the safety from harm as the raising of money this summer demonstrated that such is not the case. Rather, the love and concern is about an ethical life, a moral life, a way that antagonizes the normative way of living as separated, as segregated, as categorically distinct.

Bafflement and Outrage...

We will not allow the voices of hatred to drown out and overwhelm, we will not allow for those voices to be the only ones felt in this moment of crisis. Our ability to be baffled and outraged is a gift, it lets us know that we have not submitted to nor accepted the current loud discourse of Islamophobia. We transform this bafflement and outrage into otherwise ways to sense each other, to be in affinity with each other. We do not use the perniciousness of our times to create our relationality but simply use the capacity for relationality to rise to the occasion of our current antiblack, Islamophobic political economic moment. We recognize that our relationality is not created by the violence and violation of hate and fear mongering because we will not and will no longer be lulled to the sleep of comfort and satisfaction when it is not “our” group that is targeted for violence and violation. Our relationality exists previous to the situation, we simply must live and love our way to it. Bafflement and outrage are what animated James Baldwin’s ethical and moral demand to the world — in response to Angela Davis’s having been incarcerated — an injunction he made on himself demands of us now:

If we know, then we must fight for your life as though it were our own — which it is — and render impassable with our bodies the corridor to the gas chamber. For, if they take you in the morning, they will be coming for us that night.

We, Black Christians and Christian adjacent persons (I describe myself as Agnostic and Pentecostal, Agnosticostal) must fight for the lives of our kith and kin as if they are our own, because they are our own.

Finally, [sisters and brothers], whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.

We hold each other, love each other, work with and struggle in joy to produce otherwise possibilities for world making with each other. Our flesh is your flesh. Our lives are your lives. We seek, together, to do otherwise than this.

Learn More:

#BlackIslamSyllabusCouncil on American-Islamic Relations

Muslim AdvocatesMuslim Anti-Racist Collaborative

Sapelo Square

[If there are other organizations, local or national, that you want included, the list can be updated; simply comment.]

(What I Mean When I Say) Neoliberalism

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Remember Blackplanet? Remember how you wanted to add swag to your page by animations and images, changing the background from the standard selections to personalized HTML possibilities? Remember the animated dollar signs that some users would place on their pages, animated dollar signs that would be placed at varied intervals?Those dollar signs were supposed to show us that, yes, this person indeed cared about gettin that coin, about saving, about wealth. But if you ever tried to grasp it, you’d see that you’d just be putting fingerprints on a screen. To grasp at a dollar sign as a form of something you can own, can hold in hand, while the material of it withers away? There is no content of the HTLM code, no content that is itself the creation or sustenance of wealth. It is just the appearance of a sign that is supposed to mean, supposed to register, a range of ideas. And neoliberalism is all about the appearance of signs without the change to structures and institutions of inequity.

I use the terms neoliberalism and neoliberal pretty frequently and felt it necessary to explicate the concept, or at least how I think the terms. What do I mean when I talk about neoliberalism? When I discuss it, I am primarily talking about the structure of the economy through policy measures that include making private public goods and opening up such goods to the private sector, austerity measures, the reduction of regulation practices that allowed for unfettered economic exploitation, openings to international markets that produce economic crises abroad while limiting job opportunities domestically, the reduction in the spending of governments. When I use it, I hone in on the making private of public goods and services by subjecting such goods and services subject to market forces and trends, allowing such goods and services to be subject to Adam Smith’s “invisible hand.” Such measures produce the occasion where profit on what should be things available to all for free like healthcare, education, housing is made. Importantly, reductions in government spending do not occur in uniform fashion, it is not applied to all sectors equally. For example, in military operations there is not a decrease but an increase in governmental expenditures; monies that could be used for the greater good, to create equity are siphoned off for measures — a mix of government and private sector spending — that further destabilizes the world, creates more violence and produces the occasion for ongoing "intervention" and the monies such so-called interventions require.

Along with such inequitable spending, with the making private public goods and services subjecting them to market forces and trends, is the degradation of and moralizing against those who then cannot afford what were or should be readily available to all without controversy. The degradation of and moralizing against persons that cannot afford now profitable goods and services is about transforming inherent inequity into a seeming moral failure for groups negatively impacted, about making them responsible for their purported personal, private behaviors that are supposedly the reasons obstructing their clear path to success. It is an economic system that requires an internalization of fear and shame, though such is an affect of inequity masquerading as its cause.  And this because neoliberalism is grounded in hiding in plain sight the perniciousness of its enactment.

What are examples of neoliberalism?Neoliberal policy doesn't simply appear with measures that many would, or could, immediately dismiss as bad. Prisons that are run by private corporations are one, though minuscule — though certainly problematic and in need of remediation — example. That prisons can be produced through the logic of profit, for many, makes absolutely no sense because such corporations would need to guarantee that each “bed” is “occupied,” which runs counter to the very idea of rehabilitation that prison, many presume, is supposed to produce. And that incarcerated persons' labors can be exploited in both publicly and privately held prisons, that they can work for so many hours for so little pay, is in need of interrogation. And many were rightfully angry at the exorbitant, rapid increase in cost — 5000% increase — for medicine for people living with HIV. Yet this is the end result of making goods and services that should be available to all subject to market forces. Should incarceration allow for profitability? Should quality healthcare only be available to those that can afford expensive hospital bills? Should healthcare lead to hundreds of thousands of dollars in personal debt and bankruptcy? These policies — prison and healthcare — many readily understand as problematic. But there are others that almost feel too good and warm hearts that are equally in need of interrogation and that because the logics of economic inequity are what ground the very forces that produce these things.

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Yet, No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, state colleges and universities and even the My Brother’s Keeper Initiative all follow the same patterns of neoliberalism: each promote privatization of public goods and services, goods and services that should be available collectively. NCLB and RTTT each pressured local government, through the promise of federal funding, to privatize public schools. This happened, for example, by offering incentives for chartering parts (to varying degrees) of local public school districts. These charters would allow for public funding to be used in private organizations, making of public schooling a private market. And in the case of RTTT, school districts were quite literally subject to competition, following the logics of capitalist economics, that competition creates opportunity. Schools, in other words, are offered up to the logic of business administration and education is no longer primarily about the possibility of liberation. Instead, a problem of resource allocation because of competition is the result. But these educational institutions are also decidedly against teacher unions. Teacher unions are the organization of collectivities in the service of bargaining for better pay and work conditions, for better healthcare and training. To the degree that teacher unions are the targets for elimination of school privatization proponents is the degree to which collectivity, as a concept itself, is targeted by neoliberalism itself.Colleges and universities are especially guilty of neoliberalism with their transformation from spaces of education, questions, learning into spaces of private wealth management and real estate investment as the chief concerns. Colleges and universities have colluded with local municipalities in "redevelopment" efforts that have been nothing short of the displacement of communities, particularly low income, people of color, women. The lofts and condos and reclaimed wood, the coffee shops and walkable neighborhoods, are all good for individuals but have negative impacts on communities that are displaced.

Questions, no doubt, linger: What about the increase in people that are able to get medical care through the Affordable Care Act? Aren't prisons about protecting communities? Aren't charter schools giving parents in under resourced areas urgently needed options?  Certainly, more people accessing doctors is a net good and protecting communities from violence and harm — when it does happen (and too much research demonstrates that the opposite is, in fact, the case, with regard to incarceration) — and certainly, kids learning at schools are commendable. But there remains the question of structural inequity that neoliberalism discards and, thus, leaves materially intact. What these various measures do, to varying degrees, is demonstrate the limits of the current political economy itself, the limits of the structural forces of capitalism to produce something along the line of justice. And in each case, these measures make citizenship an explicit case of indebtedness to the nation through financialization, through putting at remove the case and cause of justice by focusing on the so-thought urgency of now. So I think about the debt that college students are supposed to accrue in order to attain educations. But the debt accrued makes them — us — indebted financially, making our relation to the nation one of financial obligation to pay back. So our work, our labor, our practice, is in the service of us paying back to the nation the very possibility of being educated. It is a pernicious cycle.

Neoliberalism, for me, is a structural relation grounded in a presumption of individualism, of property as conferring worth and value, and a necessary degradation of publicly available, collectively held, socially sustained ways of providing care, for collectively held, socially sustained modes of relationality. Just like the degradation of collective organizing and bargaining of teacher unions, neoliberalism itself requires of us to be individuals against collectivities. This works itself out as caring about me and mine, of course, at the expense — unhappily, even — of others. Neoliberalism is a metaphysical relationship between the capacity to own private property and to be a private citizen, all effects of John Locke's possessive individualism. Neoliberalization is about possessive possibility, about making goods and services subject to being owned and, thus, sold and exchanged for profit. Neoliberalism is a labor issue, an exploitation of labor and collectivity. Those of us doing its work, those of us producing its patterns without resistance have our labor exploited in ways that are structurally similar to — even if the material results and conditions of our lives differ  — those that actively resist.—The point is not simply to name the relation but to change it, to imagine otherwise possibilities, to consider alternative modes of organizing. The point is not to individualize and internalize the critique of the political economy, it is not to individualize and internalize the critique of neoliberal policy. Such individualizing and internalizing produces the occasion for thinking that our personal, private work is important — and no doubt it is — but trades the personal as a disruption to the systemic and institutional. And that is the flaw. Surely, people have, do and will continue to produce work from within the zones of inequity, myself inclusive (since I work for a university). The point is to think about the forces that structure the political economy and find ways to collectively resist these forces, to work against them.

neutrinos and social life

one hundred trillion neutrinos pass through each of us every second, yet we cannot feel them with sensual registers already discovered. there are things so very small, so small that even the word "small" is too imprecise. yet. we are, likewise, so minuscule. we are so very tiny in comparison to the expanse of the universe. every time i worry about the perniciousness of our world, the ridiculous inequity and unceasing violence, i take comfort in our smallness. it's a strange thing in which to find comfort, perhaps. but knowing how insignificant we are within this great expanse is beautiful to me.

it is not that what we experience is insignificant, no. it is very big and great and tumultuous and lovely, all. but that such big things can be, within the great expanse, nothing at all? beautiful. it comforts me that the racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, classism experienced are inventions, that they do not have to exist. and it comforts me to know that the great expanse with its relativity of time, that these isms we experience as great big things are nothing in the blip of time.isn't it beautiful that something as small as we can experience such feelingly big emotions like joy and happiness and peace and love? and isn't it beautiful that we that are so small can experience loss and grief and heartache from those lived who have passed on and away? isn't it beautiful that the smell of earth and flowers and the taste of good food can move us deeply? and yet such things are nothing...? not nothing to us who experience such things, but nothing in terms of the great expanse of space-time, the great expanse of other worlds? beautiful.i'm thinking, of course, of Gwendolyn Brooks's Maud Martha, how the story begins by describing how Maud Martha loved dandelions ... she loved their prettiness, their appearance aesthetically, only second to their ordinariness, their everydayness ... she felt that if something ordinary could be cherished, so could she. so in the ordinary, Maud Martha found the possibility for self love. so i guess i think about how ordinary we are and how we come to cherish each other and how we have big and small feelings. and within the great expanse, we are small and ordinary and nothing but we are and can be cherished.

a brief ramble about identity, spiritual identity and empire.

story time!

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.

but.

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.

Against Water Shutoffs and Occupation: The Omm Bomm Ba Boom

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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.Africville. Austin. Brixton. Brooklyn. Detroit. Gaza. Harlem. New Orleans. Sapelo Island. Silverlake.

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.”[1] 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.

v

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How dare she plant flowers in used grenade shells? 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.How dare they dance in Waffle House?

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Kima Jones, of these kids, says: 

Look at these children--not worried about fathers--Not moored to sufferingNot considering what's appropriate for public spaceCaring less about initiativesLook at their absolute joy.

baraka

baraka

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.

--

[1]Stephen Graham, Cities Under Siege: The New Military Urbanism (London ; New York: Verso, 2011), xvi.

The "Biology" of the My Brother’s Keeper Initiative

i

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.

ii

For Mom, On Father's Day

For Mom, On Father's Day

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.

iii

Karlesha Thurman

Karlesha Thurman

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.

Karlesha Thurman Comments

Karlesha Thurman Comments

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.

iv

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.

Blue Ivy Hair

Blue Ivy Hair

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.

v

“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.

Nothing Music: the Hammond B3 and the Centrifugitivity of Blackpentecostal Sound

hammond

hammond

[this paper was originally presented at the EMP Pop Conference 2014]

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.”[1] 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?[2] “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.”[3]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.”[4] 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…”[5] 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.”[6] 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.

Nothing Music

SoMusician 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.”[7] 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.[8] 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?[9] 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.”[10] 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.”[11] 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;[12] and Judith Butler began her discussion of gender performativity in Gender Trouble by bespeaking how kids play and in such playing get in trouble:[13] 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.[14]

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.”[15] 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.[16] 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.”[17] 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.

____

[1] W. K. McNeil, Encyclopedia of American Gospel Music (New York: Routledge,, 2005), 264.

[2] http://www.chicagofestivals.net/music/gospel-music/chicago-gospel-music-timeline

[3] 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.

[4] Ibid., 188.

[5] Anthony Heilbut, The Gospel Sound: Good News and Bad Times - 25th Anniversary Edition, Anniversary (Limelight Editions, 1997), 183, 173.

[6] Mark Vail, The Hammond Organ: Beauty in the B, 2nd ed. (San Francisco: Backbeat Books ;, 2002), 10.

[7] 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.

[8] Avery Gordon, Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press,, 1997), 195.

[9] 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).

[10] 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.

[11] Martin Heidegger, On Time and Being. (New York, Harper & Row [1972], n.d.), 6, 7.

[12] 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.).

[13] Judith. Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York : Routledge, c1999., n.d.).

[14] Aden. Evens, Sound Ideas: Music, Machines, and Experience, Theory out of Bounds ; v. 27. (Minneapolis : University of Minnesota Press, c2005., n.d.), 6.

[15] Ibid., 1.

[16] Michel Foucault, Robert Hurley, and Paul Rabinow, “Friendship as a Way of Life,” in Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth (New York: New Press,, 1997).

[17] Timothy James Lockley, Maroon Communities in South Carolina: A Documentary Record (Columbia, S.C. : University of South Carolina Press, c2009., n.d.), iii.

Nothingness and the Aesthetics of Having Been

I

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.

II

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]

"Ben Ali's Diary"

"Ben Ali's Diary"

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]

chalk.jpg

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.

IV

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.

[iii]

Judy, p. 240.

[iv]

Judy, pp. 240–1.

[v]

Judy, p. 242.

[vi]

Martin Heidegger,

What Is a Thing?

(Chicago, H. Regnery Co. [1969, c1967]), pp. 19–20.

[vii]

John Ridley, ‘The Manifesto of Ascendancy for the Modern American Nigger’,

Esquire

, 2006 <http://www.esquire.com/features/essay/ESQ1206BLACKESSAY_108> [accessed 14 March 2014].

[viii]

Steve McQueen,

12 Years a Slave

(20th Century Fox, 2014).

[ix]

Solomon Northup and others,

Twelve Years a Slave

(New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2013), p. 41.

[x]

Northup and others, p. 5.

[xi]

Judy, p. 226.

[xii]

12 YEARS A SLAVE | Steve McQueen Q&A

, 2013 <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KrLEXgUncKw&feature=youtube_gdata_player> [accessed 15 March 2014].

[xiii]

Michael Anthony Sells,

Mystical Languages of Unsaying

(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), p. 3.

[xiv]

Northup and others, p. 144.--Special thanks to Imani Perry, Nahum Chandler, Arthur Jafa, Ronald Judy and Fred Moten whose works have all served as the background for this conversation.

blues clues

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: 

ONE

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.

THREE

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.

churchtambourine.jpg

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.

FOUR

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.

END

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.

blues for mister charles

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.[1]  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 learning are 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.[2]

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.Obama had the following to say about “Art History” as a mode of examining the world:

[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.

[1]

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

.

[2]

Adrian Piper,

Out of Order, out of Sight

, 2 vols. (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1996).

an oversimplification of words

i

Roy Grimes disagrees with his mother and their disagreement is within the tradition of what might be called black disbelief. Black disbelief, it seems, is a refusal of the conditions of one’s life worlds while simultaneously enunciating the possibility for something new, something otherwise. Roy Grimes, in Go Tell it On the Mountain by James Baldwin, laments to his mother Elizabeth, saying that the actions of his father Gabriel do not meet up with the rhetoric of holiness and righteousness, that the violence and violation Roy receives is not consistent with the ideology and religiousness of a love ethic that is pronounced verbally. Within this gap – of which the London Underground Tube system tells us to “mind” – is the radical force of love, its capacity to produce otherwise worlds that are not grounded in such violence and violation. Roy’s is an ethical charge against the normative modes of his existence: he disbelieves that violence is concomitant with love, he disbelieves that physical, emotional and spiritual abuse is a mode of protection. He does not want to be a citizen of the household of faith, nor of Gabriel Grimes’s domestic space, because with such citizenship comes the relinquishment of liberatory praxis, of living vibrantly and abundantly. With such citizenship comes duty and obligation but certainly nothing like joy or peace. Roy, it seems, recognized this all. Roy’s frustration and demand, his disbelief, emerged from his acute perception attuned to the ways that he is victim of inequitable distributions of power. But his being victim was not a totalizing force, so much so that he spoke back, forcefully, truth to power.Nina Simone corroborates Roy’s charge. At the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1976, Nina Simone produced a rendition of the song “Feelings” by Louis Gasté and Morris Albert.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mH5ZE3N8cxU

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?I’m volunteering!

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

This misnaming is not unique to King and a “Day of Service.” This misnaming, this oversimplification of words, is what has allowed the ongoing opening of Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp that has detainees whom have never been charged with any crime at all, detainees who have been cleared for release. This oversimplification of words is what has the Affordable Care Act touted to be “universal” healthcare rather than, say, single-payer health insurance, which would, not just in rhetoric but also practice, be “universal.” These various misnamings are made possible through the logics of aversion, through a turning and turning away from the injustices right in front of us, turning and turning away with hopes that naming will otherwise do the work of justice.King’s was a critical intervention grounded in the spiritual practice and exercise of black disbelief, not in some sort of secularity that was about becoming a political subject of the state, about becoming a proper citizen. Misnaming is a problem of the secularizing – having an aversion for certain forms of social practice – of our society. Secularizing makes certain concepts available universally through a liquidation of the radicalized potential and force, leaving unchanged the inequity that produces the desire for secular civil society. What we have, then, is a secularized King, a defanged and muted object, no longer produced by and producing black disbelief as an antagonistic way of life, but now an object of suffering that is merely exchangeable. Though King was certainly about serving others, what is meant and produced by the “Day of Service” and making a political claim on his service is that King becomes a politically coherent object that serves the interests of empire, he becomes a symbol in empire’s hands and, thus, exploitative powers.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

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

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.

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

v

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

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

to be well fed

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wild_mood_swings.jpg

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.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[embed width=310]http://youtu.be/WPbpue0mQS0?t=5m38s[/embed]

I was going downBut you came in the nick of timeI was going crazyAfter I lost my babyYou came in the nickHe came in the nick of timeCame in the nick of timeI thought I would lose my mindBut 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.

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.

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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]

Rachel Jeantel

Rachel Jeantel

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.” 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 re-experiencing 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?

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[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>.