I Dream Feeling, Otherwise

Ashon Crawley, Charlottesville, VA
November 18, 2016

I woke up crying. It was a January morning, the 23rd, and I missed someone. Some family member, or some acquaintance, or some stranger — it matters not — died in the dream, disrupting my slumber. I woke up, tears in my eyes, the tears carrying the material weight and texture of what was heard, felt, known, while asleep. Tears, the trace of another world, some otherwise reality, some perhaps soon-to-come existence. And two days later, my grandmother took her last breath. Curious because I was not particularly close to her, yet the dream announced what was to happen not a couple of days later. The dream sensed the mood, the movement, the vibration of existence and gave me a cue, and clue, of the soon-to-come. The dream was able to feel something not yet revealed. It’s as if the vibration of the soon-to-come was already released and the dreamworld was able to feel into such vibration and make it known to me.

Dreams are curious objects of memory and mourning, of bright colourful joys and intense modulations of sadness and melancholy. You are left wanting, left wishing, left wondering. Dreams produce and contain and hallucinate both elation and ecstasy. Elations shared, flowing through the tender sweetness of air and breath and wind. Joys flowing like rivers, the comforter has come. Dreams. Dreams also produce and contain and hallucinate grief, grief that is too much to carry alone. Like lying in bed, slightly damp or perhaps even drenched because of tossing, turning. Confused mind jumping from thought to idea to brief smile to despair to fleeting pleasure to heartbreak. All this and a numbing hope, echoing the slight nothingness and almost emptiness of the image of desired stillness, a hope that rest and peace will soon come. Dreams. Dreamworlds are amplifications of possibility.

And I keep thinking over and over and over again about the dream and about how dreams in general have a sort of hallucinatory quality that is audible, vibrational, sounded out, sensed according to the gift of sensual capacity we’ve each been given in our individuality. (Against ableism, I want to underscore that we all do not operate with the normative five senses — some are deaf or blind, for example — but that which we’ve been given in our individuality allows us to detect worlds.) Resonance of vibration interrupts, resonance of vibration exists in our world, and we become attuned to such vibration. In dreams, feeling is most pronounced and we have to feel through worlds, with touch and taste and smell and sight and sound. Feeling, the ground of being for dreams, is about the liminal, about the boundary and threshold between what are presumed to be distinct, categorically separated and differentiated sense perceptions. Feeling the space between flesh and textile of quilts as you and I sleep is like the liminal space of dreamworlds.

One never quite understands the juxtapositions and claims that are made by dreams until a bit after the beat . . .
I endure sleep paralysis a lot. Sleep paralysis is when the mind has awakened but the flesh remains immovable, it is when a person does not process the sleep stages but jumps a stage rather than transitioning in linear fashion. It is a temporary, momentary rupture wherein you cannot move nor speak, though you are fully conscious, fully aware, fully alive to the world around you. I sometimes wonder about the relationship between sleep paralysis and quantum entanglement . With quantum entanglement, pairs or groups of particles cannot be described independently but only as a whole system: pairs or groups of particles react to stimuli and move simultaneously regardless of their current location (and they may be far, far apart). This simultaneity, this reaction without regard to spacetime separation, means that quantum particles react faster than the speed of light. With quantum entanglement, pairs or groups of particles cannot be said to be separate from each other but that they constitute a system, a collective, a whole. So what happens to the single particle happens to them all because of the way they are regarded as a sociality, as a relationality, fundamentally. If a multiverse exists, if ours is one of an infinite range of possibilities otherwise for existence, perhaps our dreams are that which rub up against and collapse into otherwise realities, otherwise worlds. Dreamworlds are, perhaps, just a system of which we are a part. Perhaps those otherwise worlds are entangled with ours.

Dreams are the audiovisuality, the images and sounds and vibrations, of alternative structures and divergent realities. One never quite understands the juxtapositions and claims that are made by dreams until a bit after the beat, a rhythm breakdown wherein the main character realizes something’s not quite right, something’s a bit off, something’s askew. To be in a dream is to exist within, to journey toward, to enact possibilities posited but not yet realized. Dreams are otherwise states of existence and otherwise — as an always infinite, never exhausted possibility — opens and unfolds through such movement. Otherwise is an anethical demand: it announces the fact of crisis in the heart of our world through the faculty of imagination, through the enactment of feeling. It is anethical insofar as the ethical names the crisis of modern man, an entity created by western philosophy and theology, an entity that exists by the exclusion of what Denise Ferreira da Silva calls the “others of Europe.”[1] Otherwise is anethical because the modes of behaviour, the demonstration of truth and justice for the others of Europe, are a performative critique of normative ethics and the man that can produce it.

What does it mean to have life within the folds and creases, within the ebbs and flows, of otherwise possibilities? To sustain such a life is to be on edge, to be engaged in a constant unfolding, a ceaseless disruption as a way of life. What life emerges in and as otherwise possibilities? Otherwise is not a place we can reach; it cannot be grasped and held or contained. Rather, otherwise announces an orientation, a posture, a journey — like an inclined ear, like a searching eye, like a rub or glide or slide to the side. Otherwise is not a place but a disruption into the originary scene of violent encounter, a disruption of what Sylvia Wynter calls the coloniality of being/power/truth/freedom.[2] Otherwise is not an identity one can claim or own as property but is a practice, is a way of life, is necessarily unsettling, a process of desedimentation, a process of excavation. Otherwise is not a place, though it certainly can be imagined within spatial and temporal delimitations, within crevices, cracks, loopholes of retreat. Otherwise, like dreamworlds, emerges to unsettle the seemingly settled theories of time and space as contained, enclosed, linear.

Otherwise possibilities trouble the temporality of modernity and its being harnessed as property. The disruption is such that we can be in spaces dedicated to the cause of the coloniality of being, but nonetheless gather together as an alternative structuring logic. Otherwise, like dreamworlds, feels surreal in its surround, yet is very intensely felt. As otherwise, dreamworlds demonstrate that what we desire, what we want, has already existed; indeed it exists alongside, and as a critique, and against the currents of the epistemologies of settlement, property and racial distinction that marks our moment of and in spacetime. Tarrying and thinking with otherwise possibility allows alternative ideas, alternative structures, and realities imagined to unfold. To unfold like sewn cloth, like sewn sound, like sewn critique.

***

Gee’s Bend is a small black community in Alabama, enclosed on three sides by the Alabama River. From within this community a quilting collective was discovered — a group of women who have been creating quilts for comfort and warmth, for protection from bedbugs and cold, since at least the mid-nineteenth century. “The quilts of Gee’s Bend communicate a distinctively African American panoply of preferences for asymmetry, strong contrast, and affective color changes, syncopation and pattern breaks, and an improvisational flair.”[3] The various quilters are constructors, sculptors of the cloth and textile; they put together concepts and ideas through the combination and mix, mixing and scratching cloth.

Such construction is all about feel, feel on the skin and flesh, feel in the intellectual practice of construction and improvisation, feel in the name of love. Each construction of a quilt stages the very question of the possibility for construction — construction as a collective, improvisational practice — and this because these same materials could have been otherwise constructed, because the force of improvisation was first harnessed to gather pieces of material together through imagined possible combinations and their necessary alternative alternating patterning.

The quilts are not about the object, but about the feeling that inheres in the object.
Of the quilts, quilter Mensie Lee Pettway stated, “Ought not two quilts ever be the same. You might use exactly the same material, but you would do it different. A lot of people make quilts just for your bed for to keep you warm. But a quilt is more. It represents safekeeping, it represents beauty, and you could say it represents family history . . . But not ever the same way twice.”[4] How does otherwise feel on skin, on hands that hold cloth and needle? Needles that sometimes prick, hands that sometimes bleed a bit because of mistake or miscalculation? And before being displayed in museums across the United States, how did such cloth feel on flesh that needed warmth and comfort? And with such warmth and comfort, a sigh, a breathing out, a breathing into. Safety. Desire. Love.

How did and does such cloth feel and smell, how does it entrap the smells of home, the food, the odour of flesh? So much feeling, so much contained there. The object of the quilt as a locus of ideations and possibilities. Pettway said, “a quilt is more.” [5] The quilt, in other words, is plural in its unfolding. The quilt is an enactment of Blackpentecostal aesthetics, it is — as Zora Neale Hurston would argue about Negro expression, Black performance — variations on a theme. And the theme is feeling. The quilts are not about the object but about the feeling that inheres in the object, that which is within, and is produced by, and emerges from, and spreads through, the object.

Loretta Pettway, Two-Sided Work-Clothes Quilt: Bars and BlocksCourtesy of the artist and the William S. Arnett Collection of Souls Grown Deep Foundation. © Estate of Thornton Dial. Photo by Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio.
Loretta Pettway, Two-Sided Work-Clothes Quilt: Bars and Blocks. Courtesy of the artist and the William S. Arnett Collection of Souls Grown Deep Foundation. © Estate of Thornton Dial. Photo by Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio.

A quilt is more: it exists as more, exists as that which rubs up against delimitation from the outside of limitation, that which exists as excess, that which exists as plurality. With the quilt, we run back into the concept of the liminal because it is the space between dream and reality, between flesh and textile; it is the idea that worlds of possibility, of entangled alternative modes of organization, are realizable. And such life and worlding between is ordinary, quotidian, everyday. Quilts on skin provide what Rizvana Bradley describes as the “haptic sense with respect to the textured life of everyday experience.”[6] I think of the way Mensie Lee Pettway describes her quiltmaking, the process of quilting generally, as the performance of irreducible plurality, of otherwise possibility, folded into the unfolded cloth itself — the way the quilt is more, the way the quilt always exceeds that which it was constructed to be. And if such possibility to be more is internal to these, then the very prompting of their being made, their being constructed and fashioned, is the desire for plurality as a way to live life, a way to be in relation to others.

Theaster Gates’ artwork alongside his construction of song emerges from refusing the borders of, and existing within the space between, the visual and the sonic. In his work we find an example of how visuality cannot be contained, but like an outpouring, overflows. We find how visuality must be sewn together with the aural, with the sonic, to realize its fullness. In A Closer Walk With Thee Gates takes words from pottery, the pottery of an enslaved man during the antebellum era — Dave Drake, also called Dave the Potter — in order to reconstruct them.[7] Living in South Carolina, Drake used his pottery work in order to place poetic couplets; he used it as a means to mark himself, his thought, his project, into that which was made by his hands, that which was constructed. Taking the etched words and constructing them into breathed sound, into song, Gates has his choir, the Black Monks of Mississippi — an itinerant group of singers and musicians Gates gathers — perform the outpouring.

And I found myself hot and red and bawling as I continued to direct to the point where I could no longer sing . . .
Folded into the pottery, to be eventually unfolded as song through Gates, was poesis, a mode of life, a way of existing that considered pottery as able to contain the plurality, the manifold nature, of Drake’s intellectual project. Captured in baked clay was the outpouring of poetry, the outpouring of thought, an outpouring that — through its being contained and held by the clay — announces for us the inability to hold and contain poetry in the head. The improvisatory resonance, the vibration and verve, the dreamworld of otherwise words, had to go somewhere, be somewhere. The poetry is the enunciative force of otherwise possibilities. Gates picked up on the refusal of categorical distinction within Drake’s works, a refusal that emerges through a poetics of pottery. Gates participates in and extends Drake’s theory of poetics.

The flesh and enfleshment of Drake’s poesis, found in the improvisation and resonance, is reconstituted and performed by Gates and his Black Monks of Mississippi. The taking of air into and out of the flesh, the process of inhalation and exhalation, to make resonant the fact of resonance, the fact of restiveness. With song, Gates is going for something, reaching, striving for something that exceeds the concept of the singular medium, a similar reaching and striving found in the baked clay of Drake’s thought. He is going for, and grounding the search in, feeling. Like cloth on flesh for warmth.

Of the Black Monks of Mississippi, Gates says that their sound, their song, is a “growing out of [Gates’] visual art.”[8] In the visual is the resonance of otherwise possibilities, and such resonance overflows and exceeds the boundaries and borders of containment, of the visual, and outpours — like water from clay pots — into the sound, the song. Describing his experience as a choir director, Gates says:

And it got to this point where like the choir stopped and then my guy, Dewayne who was on the keyboards he had this bass line . . . and it was like that moment when a black choir director can like, let loose. That was my moment. And I remember God showing up. People call that different things: a visitation of the Holy Spirit, when your head descends in Ifa, whatever that thing is, it happened. And I found myself hot and red and bawling as I continued to direct to the point where I could no longer sing . . .[9]

Gates desired, in his sonic work, to produce something on the order of constraint, a paring down of what is possible into its potentiality, into its component parts. Within the component parts, the potentiality, the alternative ordering within the object itself, is the possibility for tears and speechlessness. Another poetics, another strategy, necessary for telling, telling and bespeaking.

As a former choir director in the Blackpentecostal tradition myself, I understand that moment, that breaking off into something otherwise. Such a breaking off leads to an ecstatics of quietude, intense quietude where everything can be felt, pulsed, but words fail. Because words vibrate, because they have multiple meanings, because, according to Andrew Benjamin, translation is the nature of philosophy, otherwise is within the word, within the concept, itself. Each word is given over to its plurality, to the way it vibrates up against and resonates with other words in order to produce meaning. But as vibratory, as ceaseless movement and longing, longing and yearning, words cannot contain that feeling, that rub, that texture and weight. And speechlessness emerges as not knowing what to say because such vibration overwhelms. And so sometimes, tears. And sometimes, speaking in tongues. And sometimes, clapping of hands or holy dance. And sometimes, rapt silence. Otherwise sensualities.

But Gates is not the only one to break apart and tear and rip the component parts to bespeak an intellectual project. To break down, to deconstruct, to disassemble, to desecrate: this is what is desired by Samuel Levi Jones in his visual artwork. Based in San Francisco, his works make use of encyclopedias, medical dictionaries, and law textbooks as a means to think through concerns of inclusion and exclusion, representation and identity, identity and difference, visibility and erasure. For example, in his series Underexposed, he says his aim is “to create something visually about what was going on in terms of representation, lack of representation within the textbooks.”[10]

Samuel Levi Jones, Bad Practice, 2014. Deconstructed Encyclopedias, wood on canvas. 85" x 61" Courtesy of the artist and PATRON Gallery, Chicago.
Samuel Levi Jones, Bad Practice, 2014. Deconstructed Encyclopedias, wood on canvas. 85″ x 61″
Courtesy of the artist and PATRON Gallery, Chicago.

Jones soaks the various book objects in water, strips them, remakes them otherwise, and sews them together, like quilts, like breathed out prayers and songs of poetic force. He describes the work as “a discovery by tearing the material apart.”[11] Jones’s work is an achievement insofar as it breaks things down to their component parts with hopes of imagining, and in such imagining, producing otherwise than this.

These books are the production of information emerging from within an epistemology that assumes categorical distinction of racialization, of gender, of sex. These books are produced through the struggle over what it means to be, what it means to be human, what it means to be flesh or embodied. Jones takes the skins and spines—that which stands forth, that which upholds—and sews them together into otherwise works. Plurality of possibility exists within the object itself. The specific book categories of Jones’s artistic critiques are gatherings of thought in the service of removing and discarding thought and sense experience of racialized, gendered, sexed, classed differentiation. The removed and discarded thought is the sensuality of experience, the otherwise way of life, for the others of Europe. After renouncing the sensuality, the feel and verve, of the others of Europe to produce information about normative man, what remains are the encyclopedias, medical dictionaries and law textbooks. Jones reanimates that which has been discarded, that which has been deemed excessive, to create art projects.

And with Jones’s work, I ask, why does he choose to create in ways that are aesthetically pleasing, compelling, moving? I do not necessarily say “beautiful.” Such work does not need to be beautiful, particularly because the beautiful is so very rooted and entangled with western conceptions of Europe and its others — European man as the one with the capacity to think the beautiful, to contemplate it, to reflect on it, to draw it out. What is the feeling, the desire, the love and care that goes into reconstruction of even the dirty things, the nonrepresentational things? Why is it that he wants to put together art objects that are moving? The fragility of the objects with which he works, the fragility of the world in which we live, yet he chooses to represent in order to move, to move through and as critique, to move and compel as an act of love and justice for those of us existing in the flesh, the ongoing Others of European thought.

These examples — of the quilters, of the Black Monks of Mississippi’s poetics and song, of Jones’s repurposing and putting together book skins and spines into panel configurations, of dreams — are grounded in the stitch, in the thread, in the materiality used to arrange, to organize otherwise. Each, a quantum entanglement-like system. Each a deconstruction, a destruction, an imagining otherwise of the fabric of our lives, the place of the materiality of cloth and texture, of construction and knowledge, that constitutes the epistemology that produced for us racial distinction and its attendant violence. “The fabric of our lives” is the slogan Cotton Incorporated utilizes to advertise, to announce the importance of this textile. Yet obscured through this announcement is the way textile and texture is the foundation for the violence and brutality and horror of this world that is. The cotton gin and economy. The fabric of our lives, indeed. These artists repurpose, they seek aesthetic modalities of escape. They do not seek perfection, they do not seek the right construction of a quilt or song or book skin panel. They perform otherwise, they perform the unfolding of possibility and alternative capacity.

***

Otherwise is life in the flesh. To think with and as otherwise, otherwise feeling, feeling otherwise, is an apophatic conviction and connection, an apophatic yearning, ceaseless and open-ended. Otherwise is a way of life predicated on interruption, on acknowledging the discontinuity of flesh and the open secret of open sociality. On discontinuity, Susan Buck-Morss writes, “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. . . . As the source of stimuli and the arena for motor response, the external world must be included to complete the sensory circuit.”[12] The flesh is the point of convergence, the point of possibility from which sensual experience happens. The flesh is the potential, the possibility, for sense experience.

Otherwise emerges as the point between, the modality of interdiction, the life of serration, of cutting and edge. This is the audiovisuality achieved in Theaster Gates’s work that spills from visual to song. It is the audiovisuality in Samuel Levi Jones’ work that pours outward from exclusionary text to radical critique of knowledge production. This audiovisuality is found likewise in the haptic register of soft texture and weight caressing fabric squares sewn together by the Gee’s Bend quilters, quilts that are more than quilts from the moment of their genesis. So we turn to song, Black song, as an instance of enfleshment, of how flesh comes to matter, of how flesh feels, like sewn cloth, like unfolded thought. It is the moment when in the dance club, the DJ — through beatmatching and crossfading — mixes between two songs, the mixing announcing the fact that the beat, the rhythm, can be otherwise purposed. It is the moment in Blackpentecostal song wherein songs do not end so much as blend together.

Like Cotton Incorporated, we might ask what is the fabric of this life, this otherwise life, which threads together by paring down. Breaking the song into its component parts, making it sparse, denuding, removing voices but keeping the beat, only to add back to it. The breaking open, the open unfolding, the unfolding is transitory, translational, transition.


[1] Denise Ferreira da. Silva, Toward a Global Idea of Race, Borderlines (Minneapolis, Minn.) ; v. 27. (Minneapolis : University of Minnesota Press, c2007., n.d.).

[2] Sylvia Wynter, “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, After Man, Its Overrepresentation–An Argument,” CR: The New Centennial Review 3, no. 3 (2003): 257–337.

[3] Paul Arnett et al., Gee’s Bend: The Architecture of the Quilt, First edition (Atlanta, GA: Tinwood Books, 2006), 31.

[4] Ibid., 37.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Rizvana Bradley, “Introduction: Other Sensualities,” Women & Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory 24, no. 2–3 (September 2, 2014): 129, doi:10.1080/0740770X.2014.976494.

[7] theCAMH, Theaster Gates – A Closer Walk With Thee (Wares) – 2010, accessed May 30, 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YPZAYJxJeGM.

[8] anxiouscatfilms, Theaster Gates & the Black Monks of Mississippi, Eindhoven 2008, accessed May 30, 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GWE3iXYptrc.

[9] Ibid.

[10] PAPILLION, Samuel Levi Jones Artist Talk, accessed August 10, 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3x2brzqisvc.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Susan Buck-Morss, “Aesthetics and Anaesthetics: Walter Benjamin’s Artwork Essay Reconsidered,” October 62 (October 1, 1992): 12–3.

Ashon Crawley

Ashon Crawley is an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies and African American and African Studies at the University of Virginia. His research and teaching experiences are in the areas of Black Studies, Performance Theory and Sound Studies, Philosophy and Theology, Black Feminist, and Queer theories. His first book, Blackpentecostal Breath: The Aesthetics of Possibility (Fordham University Press), is an investigation of aesthetics and performance as modes of collective, social imaginings otherwise.

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