“The Lonely Letters” is an autobiofiction in which I attempt to think the relationship of quantum theory, mysticism, relationality, and blackness together by considering the sound and noise of Blackpentecostal spaces. Building on the work in Blackpentecostal Breath: The Aesthetics of Possibility—as the project began before and was written during and after the academic book project—the “The Lonely Letters” attempts to think together what might seem to be disparate ways of thinking worlds known and unknown, the religious and the scientific, the noisy and the musical, with hopes of considering the epistemologies of quantum physics as Blackpentecostal. It is about love and heartbreak and hope and joy. It is about sound and subjectivity, about desire and movement. It’s about the sociality of life against the repressions of anti-black, anti-queer violence and violation.
One hundred trillion neutrinos pass through each square inch of matter every second, though it is presumed to be the case that human flesh cannot feel them with sensual registers already discovered. Quantum physics verifies what we have always known, what black folks and indigenous folks and queer folks have known for such a long time: there are things that happen in the world, in the universe, that are not easily perceptible to human flesh. We cannot see on the quantum scale, eyes cannot detect atoms, electrons, neutrons, photons. We simply feel the effects of such material, how these tiny particles come together forming the building blocks of, while moving through, matter. Neutrinos are part of what quantum physicists call “dark matter,” teeny, tiny particles unaffected by light, uninhibited by gravity.
I keep thinking about these two quotes, the first from Niels Bohr and the second from Karen Barad:
quantum particles have no intrinsic properties that neatly correspond to position and velocity, and that measurement forces a quantum system to cough up values for these quantities in a way that depends on how the measurement is done.
For [Niels] Bohr, what is at issue is not that we cannot know both the position and momentum of a particle simultaneously (as Heisenberg initially argued), but rather that particles do not have determinate values of position and momentum simultaneously… What he is doing is calling into question an entire tradition in the history of Western metaphysics.
So what would knowing at the limits of justice mean—have you yet read the da Silva essay I sent you?—if knowing itself is in need of interrogation. I guess what I’m trying to say is, what if otherwise possibility doesn’t simply name a different epistemology, what if it attempts to name what is literally unknowable because it is a zone and inhabitation that does not have intrinsic properties that correspond neatly to what we call the good, the merciful, the just, the equitable—it does not and cannot have intrinsic properties of the possible and the just—until there is a forced measurement of sorts, until there is the simultaneity of event that causes a necessity?
Sorta like what I said last time on the phone, that because western man, the citizen, the human, doesn’t account for what da Silva called the “others of Europe,” then how can we measure or make attempts to understand actions and behaviors, how can we think about the ethical for those that are not considered to be human? If being ethical and having a commitment to ethics is dependent on modern man and his capacity but black folks and indigenous and queer and and and are outside such possibility, maybe what is enacted and is actionable is the anethical, a sorta way to measure and think relations of the good, the merciful, the equitable for those that don’t fit in modern epistemologies of identity and difference. And this anethical possibility would also be a critique of ethics, ethics as a normative concept that necessitates ethical being, being that emerges through the coloniality of being/power/truth/freedom. And then perhaps maybe the anethical would also mark the relation to and be the decolonial. It seems to me to be the case that the tradition of western metaphysics the physicist Karen Barad—and yes, her essay about quantum physics was excellent, thanks for sending—attempts to critique, because of the way knowledge is presumed in such a tradition, also influences the way we think knowledge of the possible and knowledge of justice simultaneously.
So, what I mean is, for example, quantum physicist Werner Heisenberg begins his book Physics and Philosophy with the following:
When one speaks today of modern physics, the first thought is of atomic weapons. Everybody realizes the enormous influence of these weapons on the political structure of our present world and is willing to admit that the influence of physics on the general situation is greater than it ever has been before.
And he’s just doing the thing that I think is terrible, the way he assumes thought itself as totalized, as universal. Like, I want to ask him, why would atomic weapons be the first thought? What is the order of things such that atomic weaponry is assumed to be the first thought? (I’ve been reading Cedric Robinson a lot lately, so he’s on my mind too.)
What is the myth of personhood, of racial and class distinction, that produces an occasion such that Heisenberg thinks the first thought of “modern physics” is weaponization and annihilation, the first thought for him is cataclysm and chaos? And what is assumed about modern man such that the mere mention of modern physics has within it this first operation, this first thinking with regard to warfare and destruction? Wouldn’t this first thought be the renunciation of the flesh? Wouldn’t this first thought, in other words, veil from view the fact that the first thought would have been produced through thinking other possibilities as not able to rise to the occasion of thought as thought? I guess I mean, the “first thought” is a misnomer of terribly large proportions, it’s only first insofar as it is the renunciation of the world, of the materiality, from which thought occurs.
And doesn’t Heisenberg’s purported first thought not assume modern man and all his intellectual capacity? Isn’t this a universalizing impulse that grounds the way he thinks thought itself? A universalizing impulse that proclaims itself to be a first operation that cannot deal with the irreducible doubleness, the irreducible plurality from which thought is nominated? In other words, the first thought ain’t first, it’s a choice, a decision, a desire and such a choice, decision and desire is produced by the way one thinks relation to self, others, the earth. This first thought is the thought of European man, the colonizer, the citizen, the human, the subject.
And what for those of us that hear about modern physics but do not take atomic weapons as a first thought, even if that thought does perhaps occur? Would those that do not think atomic weapons as a first operation be marginalized as having improper thought? Such impropriety would be queer. It just seems that this illustrates the way thought has been hierarchized, how it has been assumed, how it appears to be totalizing and producing modernity itself. Perhaps what is needed is a way to think, to cognize, to have knowledge of possibility and justice that only emerges through the simultaneity of measurement, a simultaneity beyond the limit, beyond the horizon, in the zone of darkness, a sorta anethical thrust or drive or critique. Maybe that’s what black performance is. This zone might be the secret place of marronage.
More soon but I gotta get going. Anyway, I miss you.
It’s been a while because I’ve been reading Meister Eckhart since you said I’d enjoy him. Interesting dude. You said, “Stop thinking of being alone as lonely. Think about it as a moment to reconnect with your deepest self, think about it as a chance to sit in silence and be still and to breathe and to be. If you can think of being alone as a chance to hear God, then you’ll be ok. Check out this Eckhart.”
But the more I read, the more I figure out why I have a sorta resistance to this shit—to silent retreats and shit like that—why it makes me feel weird. The Eckhart, and the other stuff I’ve been reading actually, seems to be tied to particular traditions, to particular religious affiliations, but that unsettles me. I’m not looking for a New Age individuation of blessings and wealth and acquisition that discards the histories and practices from which certain mysticisms emerge and from which they gestate. But I guess I have the same problem with mysticisms that I have with what I guess we could call, imprecisely of course, non-mystical traditions. (Does such a thing even exist?) Mystical traditions, at least the western ones, seem to run up against their own limit, seem to only be able to go so far, seem to be about the production of normative function and form.
The limit, I guess in Eckhart, would be a kind of normative Christianity. And his aloneness, his negativity, his nothingness all emerge from that limit even if he is trying to approach something otherwise. Because for his experience to be about Christianity, such experience is against the very interconnectedness of all things mysticism presumes to seek. How, in other words, can I be connected to all things, how can I be integrated as a part of a whole, while remaining steadfast in a conviction about Jesus being the only way to the Father, for example? Some folks, some doctrines, are much more dogmatic about there being only one path whereas others even in the same traditions seem to be much more open and capacious and imaginative. I wanna be like them, I guess.
So yeah, I’ve been reading Eckhart and I think he’s cool. But Eckhart assumes a certain theological world with a certain deity, godhead, a certain understanding of the human, a very particular understanding of immanence and transcendence. It’s that particularity that is introduced that seems to produce an antagonism for other traditions, even in their mystical strains. [Also, perhaps because of the invention of the category of religion as a product of modern thought and, thus, the concept of tradition too is one that I don’t know how to feel about. And I’m thinking of Talal Asad here, at least, if not others.] Based on our conversations about this, it seems you think it’s impossible, or only New Age, for mysticism to be devoid of a particular religious tradition. If that’s the case, that’s very unsettling to me.
I’m thinking of Eckhart and also Theresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross. And Athanasius and Cassian and the Rule of Benedict. I’m even thinking of John of Fécamp that says, in his book Lament Over Lost Leisure and Solitude,
It shames and horrifies me that I must appear in public assemblies, going into the city, talking to those in power, looking at women, mingling with the chattering masses and enduring so many other things that pertain to the world.
He’s just one example but think about it: he was an 11th century Benedictine monk lamenting over the fact of lost leisure and lost solitude, what was lost was so because the social world had become too much for monks to pretend to be unencumbered by, the social world made itself evident in the ways the monks had to alter the practice of their daily lives. For John of Fécamp, what was desired was leisure and solitude from the social world, from the noise of relationality, so much so that he lamented having to deal with the materiality of people, their funk, their voice, their breath. It’s just hella Kantian before Kant because wasn’t Kant, too, worried over the material fact of beggars on the street, the fact that beggars became too numerous? And didn’t Kant escape their noise because they were too much for him to engage? John of Fécamp gives a Kantian analysis of the transcendental aesthetic before Kant, or really perhaps model the sorta idea of the aesthetic to come.
What intrigues me about all these folks is their desire for a vertical relationship with the Lord over and against all other kinds of relationships, how there is a sorta necessity to renounce sociality, how there is a retreat, how there is a movement away from noise. And so, even when monks were called upon to recite the psalms daily in communal prayer, the emphasis seemed not to be on the communal aspect but on the regimentation of following the rule, of following order, of inculcating obedience in the service of the creation of the individual, of the self, of the subject. Such an individual, self, subject would be rational, would be higher, than the base emotions, than the flesh. There was an assumption, a moving out from the flesh, a renunciation of the body, to produce this vertical relation.
Living alone, ridding oneself of the appetites of the flesh as much as possible, retreating from the world into the desert. I’ve got no problem with renunciation, retreat or movement, it’s just the direction of such that worries me. And you wanted me to read this because you thought it’d help me think about being alone, or single, or finding god. I don’t know, I am thinking a lot but more perturbed than anything. But I’ll keep thinking.
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.