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.
“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.View Full Response
Letters to Moth I
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.
I’m into this, writing and study about loneliness, aloneness. But, I guess, I’m also bothered by it. It is perhaps why I have been writing you letters, why I have been reading letters – James Baldwin to his nephew, Celie to God and Nettie, N to Angel of Dust, M NourbeSe Philip to the dead who are yet with us.View Full Response
Letters to Moth II
Here’s a quote from this great essay about Ralph Ellison, Albert Einstein and George Jackson written by Lindsey Andrews:
I was lonely and I found these three lonely men. Oh, Ellison: ‘To paraphrase myself, I love you, write me, I’m lonely.’ Dearest Einstein, his ‘lonely ways.’ And Jackson, ‘alone in the most hostile jungle on earth.’ The fundamental condition of writing, of study, is enforced solitude, loneliness. I’ve been thinking of Michael Cobb who writes of the queerness of loneliness, of being alone. And through him I think the queerness of this binding, these men bound together by me is queer in me, through me. And here, too, all the women who are communing with each other, and with these men, as ghosts and at the same time materially real and so far from one another… Lonely, we have come to study together, to write each other.
I’m into this, writing and study about loneliness, aloneness. But, I guess, I’m also bothered by it. It is perhaps why I have been writing you letters, why I have been reading letters – James Baldwin to his nephew, Celie to God and Nettie, N to Angel of Dust, M NourbeSe Philip to the dead who are yet with us. I have been thinking about a theory of the letter and how it is a search for what N calls a broken claim to connection where what is sought after, what is desired, is relationship, what is sought after, what is desired, is that which exceeds the broken claim for and in the service toward establishing connection. And I guess I’ve been thinking about blackness and mysticism because there’s something about the practice of noise making that Blackpentecostals perform that is so mystical to me, that announces a fundamental and deep and moving and abiding connection with one another and the creaturely world.
In such a world, nothing is inanimate, everything moves and vibrates. But western mysticism seems to be so much about renunciation, of the flesh, of the social, before the possibility of discovery of the divine, of the intangible but perhaps felt world. One has to leave the flesh, the social, as a first move in order to hear more precisely, to feel more properly, before reentry into the social in this sorta mystical tradition. We keep thinking that mystics talk about leaving the noise of the world to hear more clearly but what would the noise have been in the medieval era? Certainly not the same noise as one hears in the world today with electricity and cars. It worries me. What was bothering John of Fécamp so much, in other words, that he had to lament?
I’ve been reading lots if Cedric Robinson and have been moved to tears because what he establishes is connection by a reorientation to direction, by just giving up on linearity though he goes through linear history to show its ruse, its uselessness for thinking the black radical tradition. So don’t think I’m picking on Eckhart or Theresa of Avila or St John of the Cross or John of Fécamp.
Robinson and the way he talks about the limits of Marxism helps me think about the radicalism internal to the mysticism even of European traditions but also the delimitation that they cannot get beyond though they move in the path of such an approach. For example, Eckhart believed in the differentiation between the divine and creaturely worlds, that there is a fundamental separation that can perhaps be bridged. There is a difference immeasurable for the divine and the creaturely. But this immeasurable difference emerges from a way to think worlds that presumes difference that is categorical, that such difference could be maintained. So with western mysticism, perhaps similar to what we find in Robinson’s Black Marxism, is the beginning of racial thought and categorization. All right there in European mystical thinking. This immeasurable difference as being possible, as being possibly maintained, as being possibly maintained and thus pure and categorical, would come to mark racialization to come, precedes and functions alongside racialization internal to European thought.
But I’m also thinking that Robinson kept talking about maroons and that perhaps he’s pointing to something that I’ve been ruminating on over and over again. Maybe marronage is a mysticism to which we can attend, a black mysticism, a mysticism of afrodiasporic, indigenous possibility. Maybe I’m after a way to think a mysticism that is about renunciation of the singular, the renouncing of individual-divisible being, the retreat into rather than away from the social, the retreat into the social as the centrifugitive movement away from the subject.
I never wanted to possess you, I wanted to be with you, make the
fact of our entanglement audible, felt, make the fact of our being
co-constituted in otherwise spacetime known. A marronage, with
you, in and as you and I as otherwise than separable. Could it be?
It, the sorta practice of marronage I’m thinking, is against John Locke’s concept of possessive individualism.
And it’s because I’ve seen Moonlight and have been thinking a lot about intimacy and the failure of western epistemologies to capture excess. This, of course, is the gift of excess.
So. Did I tell you about the dude I went to undergrad with that was, this year, flirty as hell with me but also straight(-identified), so wouldn’t own his affections or desires but he kept projecting everything on me? The one I gave a copy of The Price of the Ticket – he said he was a Baldwin fan and I was feeling nice that day and bought him a copy, had it mailed to him. He read a part of it and after he’d read some, called me on the phone – and we’d never talked on the phone once in our lives? – just to talk, about the book and other things? And told me how he couldn’t stop thinking about this one essay, “Here Be Dragons,” how he kept talking about it to everyone he was encountering, so of course I wanted to talk more about it to him. He’s the one that, after talking that one time for about 45 minutes late at night, a week later I sent him a message joking with him that he disappeared after that first convo and he replied that he was “running out of politeness” with me? The one that, after that comment, I haven’t spoken to since because I refuse to be disrespected because he can’t deal with his emotions and desires?
Well, I woke up thinking about him because, I don’t know, that shit hurt my feelings. And I think about it every now and then. I liked him, sure, but I wasn’t making things up. I know it – whatever those brief moments of intensity and interaction – were reciprocal and likely overwhelming for him but I was never never never intense or even too flirty. I guess it was my writing in the book something like “to my new friend” and closing with “xoxo” but why are straight(-identified) men so afraid of shit they start but don’t have the will to finish?
Then it hit me after watching Moonlight: it was the intimacy that bothered him. What’s been so astonishing to me about intimacy, about the way folks talk about Moonlight as “emasculating the black man”™, that intimacies between black men are cause for lament and terror and should be shunned is this: intimacy means connection is possible, that sexuality isn’t something that can be explained away with biogenic conceptualizations of the human, of evolutionary development. Intimacy means that there is something ephemeral that is sought after, desired, that cannot be put into charts, metrics, it cannot be measurable in some sorta “scientific” way. And this, it seems, is the problem, specifically in a world that presumes that science can answer all, a world predicated upon disciplinary knowledge, predicated upon the what Sylvia Wynter calls the coloniality of being/power/truth/freedom.
I’m just trying to say: we exist in a world that’d much rather have a scientific explanation for sexuality but intimacy is such that it resists such easy analytics. And this, intimacy, is a gift. It is the gift of resistance. It is the gift of being resistant to being incorporable into western knowledge regimes.
And, truth is, I enjoyed talking to him because I’d been feeling alone and lonely. especially a lot lately. Though you and I have been talking more, it’s still not the thing we had or could have and so loneliness seems to creep up on me in ways I’m not in favor of. And this isn’t to say that I don’t enjoy my friends, that their relationships are not sustenance for me; they are integral to how I’ve been able to live. But too much about me.
I enjoyed talking to him because of my feelings of loneliness that often feel like a sorta dispossession or a displacement of sorts. And I’ve been exploring mysticism because I don’t want to be lonely and I was intrigued by the call, the almost forced inhabitation, of loneliness. That’s why I’ve been thinking about Eckhart and John of Fécamp and all those others, to be honest. But then there’s intimacy and it seems to me to be against the kind of forced solitude I’ve been reading in terms of mysticism.
Tell me if I’m wrong, I guess, but maybe intimacy is also about entanglement:
Quantum entanglement is a physical phenomenon that occurs when pairs or groups of particles are generated or interact in ways such that the quantum state of each particle cannot be described independently of the others, even when the particles are separated by a large distance—instead, a quantum state must be described for the system as a whole.
Though quantum entanglement can be measured, what I’m into about it is the way entanglement means that divisibility and seperability emerge from within certain epistemic assumptions about the world and its behavior. Such a world and the assumptive logic is normative. But what of the non-normative? Quantum particles literally queer, they defamiliarize the so-thought familiar through otherwise relationality, what is considered to be normative interaction. Little, Chiron and Black all entangled to and with and in Kevin, all three stages and phases were reducible to Kevin as a sorta grounding for him, for them.
It’s about connection and I write a lot about possibility because I’ve been so disappointed in the world, in both big world historical ways but mostly on the level of the personal. How much is one supposed to endure, is something I think about a lot. It isn’t easy talking about the things I write about because they emerge from so much disappointment. Everything said, everything written, is in search of a connection.
But, admittedly, I’m still learning.
It’s been years, yes, but it feels like yesterday. It wasn’t so much that I thought you the most beautiful thing in the world – I did – and it wasn’t that I thought our conversation was so wonderful – it was – that did it for me.View Full Response
Letters to Moth III
Yes. Single. I’ve been single and the shit bothers me. And I know you wanna spiritualize it and say that I need to wait and be patient but I think, coming from you of all people, that it hurts to read you say that. It hurts when you say it on the phone. And you know it does because I hear your voice and you hear mine and you still talk to me and remain engaged and you know how I feel. And I know how you feel.
You never believe me when I say you’re beautiful, though I suppose I said it after a bit too late. I know you think priesthood is what you desire and I’m not here to stop you, never have been, but I think and have thought you were and are beautiful since the first time I saw you, since the first time you opened your gap-toothed smile up to me, hesitant, speculative, hopeful. The way I felt when I first met you? Astonishment might be the closest thing to it, the best way to describe what I felt. Astonishment as a kind of intensity of sense experience that is, at the same time, a rupture into spacetime, making time and space otherwise than Newton.
Look at this article. It says that particles’ “current” behavior are based on their “future” states:
Quantum laws tend to contradict common sense. At that level, one thing can be two different things simultaneously and be at two different places at the same time. Two particles can be entangled and, when one changes its state, the other will also do so immediately, even if they are at opposite ends of the universe – seemingly acting faster than the speed of light.
Particles can also tunnel through solid objects, which should normally be impenetrable barriers, like a ghost passing through a wall. And now scientists have proven that, what is happening to a particle now, isn’t governed by what has happened to it in the past, but by what state it is in the future – effectively meaning that, at a subatomic level, time can go backwards.
To bamboozle you further, this should all be going on right now in the subatomic particles which make up your body.
Your smile? Astonished me, opened me, made me feel some future, some moment to come, as if it’d already happened. Your smile? It’s as if the gap caused me to fall into a black hole, a space of opportunity, your smile made me quiver. Your smile? It illustrated what I think science only wishes to approach, that when I saw it, I knew you, knew you before I knew your name, knew you and knew us as us, as together, as entangled from some hallucinatory effect from something bearing down on me from outside me. Your smile? Ecstatic force, that which was outside myself caused me to withdraw into it and, by withdrawing into it, made a different relation to spacetime not only possible but plausible, not only possible but desirous.
It’s been years, yes, but it feels like yesterday. It wasn’t so much that I thought you the most beautiful thing in the world – I did – and it wasn’t that I thought our conversation was so wonderful – it was – that did it for me.
It was this: that first time we talked at the diner, I mentioned ever so briefly that Just Above My Head is my favorite novel, that I’d been meaning to buy an original copy of it because the one I had was so marked up but never had the opportunity to purchase and, of course, I’d want an original copy of the book but then we moved on to another topic and your having taken that information and lodged it in some somewhere far away in the recesses of your mind, only letting that knowledge flourish once again when months later – we were arguing, at that same diner, that night, after having spent so much time together that day and evening and the argument, of course, was not an argument at all but our closeness warming to each other – you allowed that knowledge to come back to the surface when I said to you
you never listen or pay attention to me! I already told you that!
Did I know that you would go home that very evening, go online, find a copy of the original printing, purchase it for me? And then your scribbled handwriting in the front:
to prove that I both listen and pay attention to you …
It was that that did it. That attention given to things that I did not even attend to as acutely as you scared the shit outta me. What was I supposed to make of someone who could detect in me the traces and remnants of hurt and pain that I did not even realize I enunciated? I did not know that I had spoken to you so freely, after all. Of course, now that I think about it, I said nothing different than I’d normally say or do when spending time with someone who I was interested in. It was that you had an inclined ear toward those things, you not only heard the surface but into and around. It was in the pauses and breaths I took that, I think, let you hear into the silence that was pulsating with meaning. But, of course, you heard the contours, heard the melody. It’s like you opened up what was in the statement, like pulling out the drawbars of the Hammond B-3.
You see, Just Above My Head was recommended to me by someone who’d taken notice of me when I was still in high school and he a senior in college and my mother – she was a secretary at the university – invited him to our house to eat on several occasions because he was far from home – New Orleans – and he said her kindasorta southern accent reminded him of everything he missed from home. That, and the piece of fried chicken she gave him when he smelled it wafting from the microwave as she heated it up when on break at work that day. He told her of how much he missed home and my mother was always inviting someone from the school down to the house and even though we didn’t have much, she shared with everybody. So I was used to seeing all sorts of folks. Until I saw him. He was not what I was expecting. Sorta short, sorta fat, sorta nerdy, glasses, sorta high tenor voice, sorta a drawl whenever he spoke. And, well, I was into skinny boys who loved Jesus so that we could pray together for our sinning after we laid in the bed together.
He came to our house more than once and I was taken by his ability to tell me what to do:
can I have some cold drink; can I have a napkin; may I borrow a fork
he’d ask all the time in the most polite way possible so much so that I knew I had to comply to that insistence, painful but loving and shy requests. Painful, of course, because he did not want to ask for anything, he felt it a slight and imposition. He was the embodiment of sweet. Anyway, somewhere in the middle of the year of his visiting our home, probably in December now that I think about it, he went back to New Orleans for the holidays and I was expecting him that Sunday because he always came to our house every Sunday after church but not that Sunday.
momma, is he coming over
no, he’s not.
So I sat in my bedroom, held my teddy bear and began to cry. I still don’t know why. I’d only watched him from the corner of my eye when he visited. I’d give him the things he’d ask for and retreat to my part of the table, not talking much, though he’d try and coax me into conversation often. Sorta amused contempt with this dude that would come to my house every Sunday as if he belonged. I resisted him for reasons I still do not comprehend because he was nothing if not kind to me. So there I was, in the bedroom, fourteen or fifteen or sixteen years old sobbing quite quietly because I did not want my mother or father to hear me.
Then the phone rang but it never rang for me so I didn’t give it much attention. My mother knocked on the door and told me to pick up the phone and it was him on the other line,
I know you miss me just kidding but no I’m not I’m playin so I wanted to call and say hello but no I’m just playing I just wanted to wish you a happy holiday because I know I’ve been bothering you by stealing your mother every week and now you have to deal with me taking some of your food and my bad but I just wanted to thank you because you’re a cool dude and you should know that and one day…
I did not, of course, know what to make of that run-on sentence but his voice washed over and under and through me like the spirit so I just rejoiced and was happy in the fact that I did not need to speak because my voice would have cracked anyway because I was crying.
That day began a new phase of our, I guess we could call it, friendship. And that same day, he told me how he had been reading Just Above My Head but how it was too much for me because I was still a sophomore, so too young to get it. He told me he would buy it for me when I was older but of course, he graduated, forgot about me and all, though I’ve never forgotten about him.
So yes, I mentioned Just Above My Head to you but only because I needed a new copy and wanted the original printing if possible. Your buying it for me put closure to my relationship with that guy who was too old for me but not really. But it also made me know that you would be attentive to me in ways that would both delight and annoy me. Isn’t it the case that we want someone to fawn over us until they do and then we think there something wrong with that person to give so much attention to us in the first place? That, perhaps, that attentiveness will mean that they will also detect that which we want to remain hidden away?
At that moment you were more beautiful to me than beauty itself, than the concept of the beautiful. And, shit, it scared me. It was the book. It was the scribbling inside. It was that you knew how to make me overjoyed. But if that was joy then surely lurking around the corner was disappointment, or so I convinced myself.
Astonishment is like that. You are confronted with something awe-inspiring and inducing. You are taken up in and assumed by that confrontation, dwelling therein, listening to its heavenly musics, abiding and loving and existing in some other temporality, some other such zone of time where time is not but what is given is and is as something constantly being taken away. Of course, what was being taken away in that infinitesimal encounter and confrontation was the idea that loneliness and brokenheartedness are perpetual and unending. Meeting you? I knew that shit was a farce and that happiness existed. Right in front of me. Smiling, gap-toothed, always. That smile? Maybe that’s the moment of entanglement, the moment of being taken and joined with another. It’s a sort of pairing that cannot be produced by laws and churches but only by intimacies, intimacies that emerge from the soon to come that determine the past nows.
But, of course, that’s only one side of astonishment’s encounter. You can’t stay there forever, can you? Who knows? I’m pretty sure none of us stays there long enough to find out if you can actually stay there so then we’re released to the other side and we run far away from that which prompted such feeling in the first place. [And don’t judge me for having many in the first place phrases; they are all anoriginal, in a way, they are all rooted in the same tradition of fear.]
By the time I figured out that kind of experience was possible and that it could be ongoing – how long had we lived together, sung and fucked together, and me not trust you still? – you were gone and talking about becoming a priest again. Again as if for the first time. And thus, the ongoing silence to anything emotional I said to you that you enacted. You know I still look at your copy of Just Above My Head almost daily, it’s still on the bookshelf underneath the television. Do you know that I often pick it up off the shelf, thumb through it so as to act as if there is nothing written on the front flap such that every time I open the front flap I feign surprise? Or, not feign really, because I am and always am surprised by your knowledge of who I was [and am? and would be? who knows?] demonstrated by your scribbled writing, but be astonished, still?
It’s because Baldwin says this:
Arthur realizes, for the first time, consciously, that Crunch listens to him, responds to him, takes him seriously – takes him seriously, even though he always makes fun of him.
You think, just because I’m bigger than you that I can’t be in love?
Peanut and Red were happy simply because Crunch and Arthur were happy.
There is always a beat beneath the beat, another music beneath the music, and beyond.
The song does not belong to the singer. The singer is found by the song. Ain’t no singer, anywhere, ever made up a song – that is not possible. He hears something. I really believe, at the bottom of my balls, baby, that something hears him, something says, come here! and jumps on him just exactly like you jump on a piano or sax or a violin or a drum and you make it sing the song you hear: and you love it, and you take care of it, better than you take care of yourself, can you dig it? but you don’t have no mercy on it. You can’t have mercy! That sound you hear, that sound you try to pitch with the utmost precision – and did you hear me? Wow! – is the sound of millions and millions and, who knows, now, listening, where life is, where is death?
Thirty [years old]. And I was alone, had been for a while, and might be for a while, but it no longer frightened me the way it had. I was discovering something terrifyingly simple: there is absolutely nothing I could do about it. I was discovering this in the way, I suppose, that everybody does, but having tried, endlessly, to do something about it. You attach yourself to someone, or you allow someone to attach themselves to you. This person is not for you, and you, really, are not for that person – and that’s it, son. But you try, you both try. The only result of all your trying is to make absolutely real the unconquerable distance between you: to dramatize, in a million ways, the absolutely unalterable truth of this distance. Side by side, and hand in hand, your sunsets, nevertheless, are not occurring in the same universe. It is not merely that the rain falls differently on each of you, for that can be a wonder and a joy: it is that what is rain for the one is not rain for the other.
Baldwin named an experience I sorta knew was available and possible in a vague sense but gave it flesh and bone, he didn’t romanticize it nor make it heroic, he just made my imagination sense and feel and sorta hear and touch and taste and smell that there could be something if I opened my clenched fist of conservative theology, my clenched fist of dogmatism, and breathe and breathe and breathe and hope eternal that perhaps I could find some kinda love if I stopped valuing solitude and loneliness and aloneness as the only possible habitation of divine call and encounter. He didn’t romanticize nor make heroic the pursuit of queer life, just elaborated as if it were one in many, one in infinite, ways that one could live life. And there’s a devastating precision with which he writes.
Whatever we hear in music is after the fact of its having been sounded out before its being played. Music is always after the vibration, it is delayed. And if what the song sings is different than the song, then the singing is always an attempt, a failed attempt, to get at the song. And if the song doesn’t belong to the singer but the singer is for the song (but, it seems important to note that Baldwin did not simply flip the statement but replaced belong with for), what it seems Baldwin is doing is also considering song and relation to it as necessarily a decolonial practice, a practice against possessive individualism, a practice that is about unfolding and outpouring and always having a posture of opening and yielding and giving.
There is a sorta clarity, a kind of refusal for the ornamental if the ornamental and the flourish meant discarding with material and textured ways of life. The ornamental and flourish, for Baldwin, emerge through expanding upon the mundane and quotidian and ordinariness of love and heartbreak, of friends and family all. It’s why the novel, every time I read it, still moves me. I read Just Above My Head again, as if it were the first time, and was struck by the chords of what always struck me, how – this time reading it – it’s like Baldwin talked about love and song as a sorta laminated analysis of quantum entanglement. What I’m trying to say is, what I’ve been saying to and about you about us is not novel at all, it’s something that I can only write to you about because of folks like Baldwin, because Baldwin gave me a kind of language and spacetime in which to dwell, his elaborations of Arthur and Crunch, of Arthur and Jimmy, of Arthur and his love for Hall.
Come over. Come see me. Please. Soon.
Remember when I showed you the paintings I’d make when I was just a kid, maybe twelve or thirteen years old when I had dreams of becoming the black Bob Ross, afro and all? And remember how I told you my father had a couple of the paintings in his office when I was young and you said that you wanted them too?View Full Response
Letters to Moth IV
It took me a while but I was looking over things I’d written in my sent box and figured I should tell you that I started painting – or really, attempting to make art – again.
Remember when I showed you the paintings I’d make when I was just a kid, maybe twelve or thirteen years old when I had dreams of becoming the black Bob Ross, afro and all? And remember how I told you my father had a couple of the paintings in his office when I was young and you said that you wanted them too? I really just thought you were being kind, and him too really, to offer such a thing. I don’t think much of what I painted then but I’m back into it now. Less Bob Ross, much more abstract and little about landscapes.
I still remember it being so sweet to want to bring them home with you so that you could, you’d said, constantly be reminded that I was someone’s child, that I belonged to my parents, that I was at one time in a high chair needing to be fed, and struggling on floors attempting to tie shoes and a child who cried a lot. It was this toddler that’d become a child that attempted to paint, to make a world he’d never seen except on The Joy of Painting. You said, then, that the paintings reminded you of the fact that we all come from some place, that we all have dreams and ideas and goals, even when we are young, even when they don’t necessarily turn out the way we thought. And I definitely could not have anticipated the life I have now then …
Anyway, I just wanted to tell you that I started making art again, though it’s not good at all; been recording the entire process, actually, with my computer and sometimes my phone. I’ve been using my apartment, getting paint all over the place, but it makes me feel alive, to get all this color on the walls and on the floor and have to scrub myself with various kinds of soap to remove oil paint and acrylic ink and watercolors. It’s been fun.
I was inspired by this one video Desiree sent me of a little girl making art in her home … she was covered in paint, had it all over this large room – the splattered on her dress and tights, in her hair, on the floor and walls. It was mosaic. I’m pretty sure her parents had access to all sorts of financial resources because one of the reasons I stopped as a kid was because it was too expensive. It’s one thing to buy a ten-color kit of paint and a couple of brushes. It’s another thing altogether to run through that in less than two weeks and ask your parents to buy more. And more. And more. It was too much, I had to slow down, had to try a different creative outlet. And I think about Alice Walker, searching for gardens, and wonder what kind of art practice folks have created without access to tools and materials, but also what was squandered because they couldn’t get it.
Anyway, the comments on youtube were full of people saying things like my kid could do that too! or this isn’t really art! she’s a child! which is just sad. I was simply moved by her intentionality. Sure, she’s a child, but aren’t we all? And sure, she’s young but does that mean she can’t make choices about color and placement and mood? So much of what happens in the normative world is because of the idea that only certain people have the mental capacity to think and conceive of the beautiful, that only certain people with the mental capacity to think and conceive of aesthetic choice. But my nephew hates – HATES – peas … and pineapple … and milk. This dude refuses to consume those things; the very sight of them makes him have a fit. And yeah, he’s only five, but dude knows what he likes – broccoli, for example – and what he doesn’t. He makes choices all of the time. So why can’t this little girl?
Anyway, so Desiree sent the video not hours after I’d been sitting in the office, longing for home, crying a lot because of these “praise breaks” I’d been listening to. Something in the music, in the clapping and stomping and in the shouts and orations, something in those sounds made me sit weakened, almost no energy, so the tears just flowed. I was already vulnerable, already open. Then she sends a video of a little girl making art…and it was in the middle of that video when she had all this blue paint on her hands and she was bent over and began to clap them, lightly, and blue splattered all over the canvas spread on the floor.
And I don’t know if I can convey how much that very simple, nuanced, barely there movement hit me with the force of so many angels singing. I sorta wanted to run around the house but, instead, I hopped on the computer and began ordering as much paint as possible, as much as I could afford. I needed to get moving as quickly as possible on what seemed to be an awesome idea. It, along with canvases, arrived soon after. Bottles of blue, purple, green, yellow and red acrylic paint, muted colors, inks and oil paint too, old socks I never wear anymore and my laptop in hand, I placed the canvas on the floor, plugged up the laptop and began to play all these testimony service songs and shouting music. But I stopped to experiment first. I wanted to see what it’d look like to clap my hands and let paint fall on the surface.
I took a big brush, dipped it in water and let the water fly over the surface at random intervals, wanted to approach allowing the water to create its own path. What I was really after was to think the fleshliness of the practice of clapping, how it – in blackpentecostal praise, at least – can get sweaty, how the flesh heats and attempts to cool itself. So the random arrays of water lines and passages were to be representative of sweat. I then took muted green and black paint, poured it in my hands, and began to clap lightly. I wanted to see what the color’d do once it found its meeting with the water.
Take me to the water
Take me to the water
Take me to the water
To be baptized
I ain’t righteous no more and am not tryna see the god of my parents, not the one that is petty and mean and egotistical. But I did want the paint to be carried in the air to the water. And it made all these patterns and splotched.
Seeing the splotches, the black and green and how it sorta fades out here, deepens there, I felt prepared to challenge myself with shouting. My wood floors just had to adjust to being messy because there was no way around making everything soiled with paint color. With the first shouting experiment, I dipped one foot in red paint, another in blue and began to shout on the surface after wetting the surface with water like I did with the hand clapping experiment. I almost slipped, almost – my mother would’ve said if I were a kid – broke my neck. The slipperiness of the wet surface with the slipperiness of the paint on my feet made me slip quickly. But I got my bearings and began to shout, kinda delicately, kinda politely, I just wanted to see what’d happen with the color. I was too cognizant of the whole ordeal, so wrapped up mentally in it, couldn’t release myself into a full praise because the music was too low and I was too self-conscious.
I took a couple of days off. In that time, I created a playlist of all these songs that would allow me to clap my hands, stomp my feet and shout rather quickly, up-tempo songs that would make me break a sweat if I were really into it. And I sweated. A lot. When I returned to it, I pressed play and turned up the volume as high as possible. I slipped on socks and stood in the middle of the floor, opened a bottle of paint and poured it all over my hands – like the little girl – and began to clap to the rhythms.
Now, keep in mind that I haven’t seriously done this in a long while so it took a minute to get my de-composure; that is, I was way too serious – instead of playful and jubilant – about it at first … I was too conscious of not wanting to look or feel or be silly. But I also didn’t want for what I was doing to not be sacred, to not honor the tradition from which I learned this kinda choreosonic way of life.
As luck would have it, after the 4’08” rendition of “There’s a Storm Out on the Ocean” – a rather mildly paced “fast” song; nothing too strenuous – some shout music that I’d downloaded from youtube came on. A church in Baltimore, a clip of Bishop Robert Evans talking about “dancing in one spot” and it really made me think about the sorta refusal of tightness-as-constraint in the black radical tradition, a kinda mysticism of movement that takes constraint as impure possibility, constraint as occasion, constraint as expanse. In the clip, voices of small yelps and hollers with the pronounced sound of the Hammond and the drums let me imagine kids laughing and jumping up and down because their mothers were shouting and not paying much attention to them, where the men would say hooooo loudly. He talked about storefront churches as places where praise happened but because of the tight compression of flesh in not large spaces, people had to find a spot on the rug or the wooden floor and just go at it. Dancing in one spot is a kind of expansion of compression through praise, through the movement of the flesh.
So I poured paint on the canvas-floor and began to dance, began to shout, as if I were in church with them; eyes were closed now, mouth was frowned now, lips were flattened out now; I was moving to the rhythm one-two-three-dip, one-two-three-dip. It was the loudness that allowed me to get lost in the sound, in their posture and posing.
It was the loudness of the music that broke me out of my thinking-too-much-about-it just momentarily enough to open out into something else. I kinda put my head down, smiled to myself. But after I smiled, I closed my eyes and listened to the people praising, to the drums, to the B-3 creating sonic distance between the bass and the use of the notes in the highest register, all drawbars pulled out. And then it happened. Some something happened. And when things got too sticky, I got more paint and poured it in a tray, stepped in it, then recommenced shouting.
After I opened my eyes, I saw blues, reds and the breakthrough of purples in various intensities, depending upon how hard and where I danced, how much I mixed and, quite literally, scratched the canvas with old-new colors. I opened my eyes, tired and sweaty, feeling as if I’d touched some otherwise, as if I’d worshipped even while maintaining disbelief to why – and what – people often say they worship in the first place. I discovered something in the movement itself, something that could not be contained by a confessional faith, something that is not merely transcendent but that is, most fundamentally, constitutive. Upon opening my eyes, the canvas had a few splotches of color here and there, a few strings of paint every now and then.
But it was still far too empty. One person simply can’t do the kind of spiritual-material thing alone. [And I use the word thing here intentionally; it’s etymology, meaning the place of gathering to discuss matters of concern – though I’m sure “discuss” could also easily index a desire to work out, a desire to perform, a desire to think – is important to what I’m envisioning for the soon to come.] So though I’ve been practicing by myself a lot lately – with all sorts of paint – I’m hoping to invite others to play along, to recreate a church service where the residue of such sociality will be the colors we leave behind.
Residue. That’s the word for it. A kind of remainder, an excess that cannot be explained. Or explained away. Residue kinda names an excess that is experienced or gained at the moment when the mode of shouting and clapping is sorta unconscious, maybe aconscious. Weird thing is, if consciousness were all just a thing our brains manufactured and it was experienced differently for each of us, if our realities were all a dream that were ephemeral and’d wither away at a moment’s notice, that still would not answer the question of why it exists, how it came to be, what would ephemera or a dream mean in such a case? If it were manufactured, we still wouldn’t understand the sensations created. If a dream, why we have it.
If we had “scientific” explanations for life, that still would not explain why it is we feel love and joy and heartache and sadness. What, to explanation, is happiness experienced, butterflies endured, elation given and withheld as so many breaths? Even if we could explain all, we would not know what it means. There is something in the gift of life that exceeds the enclosures of logic, of science, of explanation, of analytics. And that – that excess, that residue – is a gift.
It is a gift that doesn’t seek to explain as much as it seeks to experience, it’s not so much about the product – though I do hope the series created, the series waiting to be created – will be considered beautiful and moving. The fundamental force of it is the experience, the movement, the verve, the fact that it happened, it happens, it will happen.
I’ve said all that to say: the little girl quickened in me the notion that even clapping, even shouting – any movement, or hairsbreadth nuance, of breathing, of dilation – contains within it the potentia for the thing we call art. Such movement simply needs the work energy to convert. Her clapped hands with blue made me want to see what it would look like, what the sorta blackpentecostal praise I love would splatter on the ground and upon walls; I wanted to see what praise looks like after the bodies – the material force of such creation – left the building. Would I be able to look at the canvases and papers and whatever other surfaces chosen and see something of such gathering, of such moving of spirit, by spirit, for spirit? I chuckle a bit after am done with the experiments because it brings me a kind of unconscious, aconscious joy, but I’m also becoming much more adept with color mixture and I’m getting my good breathing back too, which means I’ve convinced myself that there might be something to this experimentation, in color, in song, after all.
Let me know what you think.
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.”View Full Response
Letters to Moth V
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.
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.View Full Response
Letters to Moth VI
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…