“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.
I bought a tambourine. I wanted to add to the percussiveness of the handclap, wanted to add to the visual noise of blackpentecostal dance, play, force. So I bought a tambourine and tried it out. The first thing I did when I pulled it out the box was begin to lightly beat it on my left hand – into a fist balled up – sorta held my breath a bit, created a kinda up-tempo rhythm and pat my foot too. The thing I’d forgotten about tambourines is how loud they are. And my apartment has these high ceilings, so it was very, very, very loud.
As with the first experiments, I poured paint on the surface of the tambourine and began to beat it to the rhythm of various songs and sounds. It included shouting music – more praise breaks I found on youtube but also Section VIII of “Music for 18 Musicians” and even a bit of “Becoming Ocean”; they’re all meditative in various kinds of ways – and let the paint splatter. I’d go from hand clapping to tambourine beating and back again. One thing I realized, after having not done this in the context of church, is how much praise requires of the flesh in its varied manifestations.
It’s been good to do this, to experience this, to think my relation to praise and worship differently than the sounds and grounds of my spiritual emergence. It’s been a process of profanation, of, following Agamben, restoring the anaesthetic practices of blackpentecostalism to their common use. That’s what the visuality of the sound is about, it’s an attempt to think the broad implications of the sonic made manifest in the color through how they emerge in their particularities.
It’s also to think the audio and visual together, to make apparent the fact of the movement of air and space displacement through paint, through the line of flight any particular drop of paint takes before it reaches its destination. My friend Emma said it best, that it’s about “the way this one calls attention to what the instrument does as an instrument between flesh and trace.” In some sense, the air – the breath; the black pneuma because it is freed from restriction, because it is fleshly celebratory – carried the color to whatever surface destination to which it arrived. The air, the blackpentecostal breath, carries, it holds, it embraces color for its eventual delivery.
The mass movement is taking place every day in town, we’re here, all caught up in it. So it’s not like now, when one would have to sit down and make a conscious decision to say, “I’m going to do this.” Rather, you were carried by a movement something like that in America in the sixties, the black and other movements which had begun earlier with the bus boycotts, in Montgomery, Alabama.
Sylvia Wynter offered that about her time in Jamaica in the forties, how one was not necessarily intentionally a part of movement but was carried by its currents. I think of blackpentecostal performance practice like that, the noise and the joy, the fervor and fury, somehow it carries those near it, in it, and it spreads. I wanted, and still want, the practice of artmaking to match in intensity and force this kinda desire for, this movment of, being carried. I think so much of what’s wrong with the misrepresentation of the Black Radical Tradition these days is because of a fear of being carried. Because, let’s be honest, one can be carried and carried away.
The blackpentecostal church services I miss are the ones driven by joy, the kind when walking in the service, you say “I love this kinda carrying on…,” the noise, the praise, the exuberance. It’s an exuberance that isn’t embarrassed about the noise, the fleshliness, the excess. We called that kinda carrying on “getting happy” and it’s just such a simple but wonderful concept, that one can get happy, seize hold of it, because they give or outpour or release praise. And so one must open oneself up to being carried, carried away, carried away to get happy in the way Wynter describes it. This is what I want the artmaking to invoke, to convoke.
And it makes me miss things, miss church, miss the sociality of it all. Maybe things entangle that we cannot yet detect. Maybe entanglement announces relation that is not yet fully grasped or comprehended because it is a kind of relation that goes and runs against the limits of knowledge, or a western way of thinking relation.
To miss the one you do not know but feel. Entanglement. The fact of unbroken claim to connection that cannot be detected by normative sense experience, entanglement announcing relation that cannot be fully comprehended or grasped. Though not comprehended, ungraspable by the finite senses already discovered, relation still is no less real. It happened, it happens, it endures. Searching for something, reaching for something, like what N says of the falsetto voice, to critique the insidious falseness of the normative world, seeking the new word, new world. But not new, otherwise. I guess what I mean to say is, the spiritual does not belong to the religious and there are epistemologies that do not assume such, especially given the fact of religion’s being constituted as a modern way to think, and think against, relation.
The spiritual has been sequestered to the religious because of the modern epistemological desire for categorical distinction and coherence, a desire for enclosure against spilling and spillage, another way to say excess and vulnerability and openness as a way of life. And so I feel a spiritual connection to these various things but I need not be a believer in a religious tradition in order to have such a connection. It’s like the momentary key change the Hammond organist does when following along a singer that is performing an arrhythmic song and just talking, the kinda key change that causes the saints to go whooooo and scream and throw up their hands without being conscious of it, it’s the accessing of another reality, a black dimensionality, otherwise possibility. Black dimensionality opening up to that which has been sequestered.
That’s what I’ve been attempting to discover in this practice, in these performances: how to release the spiritual from its being sequestered into the zone of the religious while taking account of and never degrading the spiritual or the religious which has carried – as air – the content of the practice with such intensity, with such precision, with such love. Maybe the spiritual needs to be released from having been sequestered in the zone of the religious. Maybe that’s love. Maybe that’s desire. Maybe that’s entanglement.
Worship, even in the context of congregational gatherings, are deeply intimate practices. The clapping of hands, the shouting, these are all grounded in the fact of the flesh. They’re a sort of publicly intimate practice, communal but deeply stylistic for the individual, they unmake the desired-subject of western thought through a releasement into practice, through a relinquishment of the hoped-for individual. This is what the series is attempting to announce. I call it There is no center of the universe… and this because I’m against the concept of centering.
Centering assumes a certain spatial logic, that a center can be approached and maintained but – as far as human knowledge has been able to discover – a center of a universe doesn’t exist.
In a conventional explosion, material expands out from a central point. A short moment after the explosion starts, the centre will be the hottest point. Later there will be a spherical shell of material expanding away from the centre until gravity brings it back down to Earth. The Big Bang—as far as we understand it—was not an explosion like that at all. It was an explosion of space, not an explosion in space. According to the standard models there was no space and time before the Big Bang. There was not even a “before” to speak of. So, the Big Bang was very different from any explosion we are accustomed to and it does not need to have a central point.
This has really stuck with me, the explosion of rather than in space, the way spacetime is a gathering of an otherwise relation to knowledge production. What does it mean that there is no center of the universe? It’d mean that there is no center at all, that to desire centering would only ever be a momentary interruption of the flow of the universe.
Lambert stared at them a moment, then began by saying that all the talk of being ‘more centered’ was just that, talk, and had long ago become too easy to throw around anymore. He then asked what, or where, was this ‘center’ and how would anyone know it if it were there. He went on, tilting his chair back on its hind legs, folding his arms across his chest and saying that he wasn’t sure anyone had anything more than the mere word ‘center,’ that it didn’t simply name something one doesn’t have and thus disguises a swarm of untested assumptions about. Then he shifted his argument a bit, saying that if our music does have a center, as he could argue it indeed does, how would someone who admits being ‘somewhat uninformed’ recognize it, that maybe the fellow from the radio station wasn’t saying anything more than that our music churns out of a center other than his, one he’s unfamiliar with.
What can be made in absence of the center, the concept of centering? What can be produced, what kind of relations can flower and flourish in such a case? If there is no center of the universe, what does this mean for how we can relate to the natural world? Whiteness is dependent on centering as its logic and ground of operation. To emerge from a way of life that is antagonistic to whiteness, to thought-theological, thought-philosophical as racial hierarchizing, is to consider the ways the tradition of emergence precedes the concept of centering. Isn’t this what Cedric Robinson was getting at by talking about the terms of order for the black radical tradition not being an alternative of political economy of racial capitalism but an alternative to its line and root? There is no center of the universe because, like the prepositional proposition Robinson introduced with of and to, the universe likewise is a prepositional conundrum, the explosion of and not in space. We gotta think relationally differently.
Well, it’s like, I don’t go to church no more but I will never deny the transformative impact growing up like that has had on me. I wanted to figure out a way to honor the tradition, to take it seriously but also to say the practices can be deployed otherwise. And I wanted to also really think about how the practices of social dance, of breathing with a kind of intention – like whooping – how praise noise and glossolalia have been sequestered into the religious and how they need a certain kind of release, they are practices that call for the flesh unbound, flesh liberated.
You asked me how it feels to produce these, to perform them? I’m still figuring it out. So far, I’ve been both intimately present but also kinda ecstatic, kinda beside myself, attempting to outpour myself out of and release myself into the sociality of blackness that blackpentecostalism has carried with a kind of love and exuberance and joy. It’s not been exactly how it was when I was a member of, say, Open Door, but the clapping and the shouting are attempts in the direction of that intensity. How does it feel? It feels good, nostalgic, sacred. But a different kind of sacred, a sacred that doesn’t presume a separation between the natural and supernatural, between the visible and invisible world. It makes me long for more, more practice, more breath, more exhaustion, more connection and joy.
One time I posted a praise break on facebook and Rocky said that there was a “noise underneath the noise” and this is why I’ve been playing a lot with texture too, what the visuality is trying to approach, a way to map and color and make visual that underneath, that underside, that underground, that undercommon noise, noise that makes possible the emergence of noise and music.
Anyway, I’m hoping to create in such a way that having gone to church isn’t a prerequisite for engaging the work even thought having gone does give a certain kinda insight. Can it be familiar without it being “known”…? This is kind of knowing at the limits of justice that Denise Ferreira da Silva talks about, I think.
I wonder if there’s something that called from against the spacetime of linear thought that compelled me to be in relation to a sorta Black Radical Mystical Tradition, a tradition that seems to be against genre as a certain kind of delimitation, a certain kinda enclosure, on thought. I think about WEB Du Bois, how he was a sociologist, a historian but also a novelist and an artist too. Something about the precision of his craft that is moving to me.
And I think about Zora Neale Hurston, how she was an anthropologist, a novelist and – also – a singer and playwright. Or Sylvia Wynter, a philosopher, a novelist, a playwright. I don’t know, it just seems to me to be a pattern to which we should attend. It seems to me , when contending with the force and verve and import and movement of black life, they couldn’t confine themselves to a certain form, had to escape form itself in order to present in various, multiple ways. They had to be textured, layered, in their exploration and elaboration of the textures and layers of black sociality. It’s so reminiscent of what Wynter says about the genre of the human that is overrepresented, Man, how it is produced by a kind of categorical distinction of this genre over and against all other genres. A categorical distinction that would at the same time be a flatness, a flattening. I wonder lots about a black mysticism as an antidote to such distinctions and flatness and the genre of human that thinks pure distinction possible. And I wonder about how these practitioners perform a resistance to the genre of human by performing a resistance to genre in their creative work.
Let me know, though…
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.