Evening Will Come: A Monthly Journal of Poetics (Affect Feature—Issue 55, July 2015)

Fred Moten
Blackness and Poetry

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New contributions to Afro-diasporic thought, whether under that contested rubric or the purportedly more politically attuned category of the transnational, whether they continue to explore and inhabit the anecological, anafoundational rupture of the slave trade or seek out the new epistemologies and ontologies that are said to correspond to an era more properly defined by global flows of information, labor, and capital across the boundaries that mark the Westphalian international order, continue to produce and expand possibilities for moving through the politics of identity that lie at the heart of the European political and philosophical project of sovereignty. Now, in the wake of poststructuralism, postmodernism (which should be understood not only as a political-economy of dispersal but also as the poetics of experiment that corresponds with and resists it) and the various ways they allow for critical investigation of the very ideas of subjectivity, and given how the category of the human has been put under the severest pressure by the terrors of colonialism and imperialism, particularly when these are the forces the first world and its others turn upon themselves, black thought, which is to say black social life, remains a fruitful site for inhabiting and soliciting the human differential within the general ecology. Black thought is the socio-poetic project that examines and enacts these possibilities insofar as they exist over the edge of the separatist, monocultural and monotheistic imperium that will have been defined in and by ontological and epistemological settlement. So that while we must work in admiration of scholars whose attempts to discover and delineate new ontologies and epistemologies bring into sharper relief the limits and limitations of ontology’s and epistemology’s joint power and sphere of influence, it is from those terminal interminabilities of passage, which M. NourbeSe Philip announces in ana(n)themic song, that we won’t and can’t (re)turn. In turn, in this continual turning out of the plain of no return, in the constant dislocation of our endless arrival, we book passage on this transportive thought: that modernity (the confluence of the slave trade, settler colonialism and the democratization of sovereignty through which the world is imaged, graphed and grasped) is a socioecological disaster that can neither be calculated nor conceptualized as a series of personal injuries.

Consider Philip, whose example is so prodigious and so profound; consider, in particular, her Zong! (first published in 2008 but in progress insofar as it continues to deepen and unfold in rich irruptions of aniterations and nonperformance). The story whose telling Zong! seizes, the seizure whose toll Zong! sings, is well known: In 1781 the captain of the slave ship Zong (a vessel of Dutch manufacture which earlier had been called Zorg, or care) ordered that some 150 Africans be thrown overboard so that the ship’s owners could collect insurance taken out on their “lost cargo.” Philip’s irruptive interruption of the long, unnatural history that envelops and exceeds that event takes up the unseemly phonic proximity of song and Zong! Philip’s heroism, which emerges as a radical disavowal of the heroic, consists in a deep and fatal sounding. She descends into a place from which neither return nor recovery are possible. Strangely, because it is of the eternal stranger, that place’s character is that of a non-place, a zone of differentiated stress and distress whose particular gathering of trouble is not alleviated but redoubled by a transfer of energy from atopos to utopia that even all brutality and remembrance cannot still. The one who dives, who falls, into the wreckage of the shipped cannot come back for or as or by herself; but there is a frayed, refrained remainder that is more than both the reality and the dream of subjectivity. What remains is more than incalculable loss. The logic of this supplement, whose appearance as fade and induced forgetting is terribly beautiful, dictates that the next word be “nevertheless.” Nevertheless, this deprivation is sung forevermore. Flung into and out of the depths, there’s a broken psalm of gathered brokenness whose exhausted articulation by degrees, through every remote displacement of confinement in expanse, is given to us now as preservation, lifted, lifting, into fugal, centrifugal air, the lyrical imposition of the commercium, the celebration of our funereal, venereal mass. En masse, Philip realizes this inescapable and overwhelming truth: that insofar as the story of the Zong cannot be told, or sung, alone it isn’t a story, it isn’t anybody’s story, at all. Zong! is the story of no-body and it cannot be sung alone. The soloist, the “chorister whose c preceded the choir,” has come to tell you that and nothing more. What remains is that she who is no more, who cannot come, has come to tell you that there’s nothing more than that incalculable loss and supplement. She has come to tell you what she cannot tell, to tell you that she cannot come. Sent with a song for you to sound, a scar to swoon, a swarm to send you, too, there’s just this sending, nothing more. Whatever anextraordinary rendition proceeds must be in haptic concert, the irreducible sociality of black descent/dissent and black ascent/assent in profoundly exhausted, animated and animative, consent.

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Poetry blurs, but where’s that coming from? How is endless play confirmed after, and against the grain of the very idea of, the work? We’re supposed to derive from the work, in its completeness, some sense of its rule. But what about the openness of the work, its internal sociality as well as the social relations of its own production, which not only escape but also succeed the works seizure, not to mention that rubbing of the work that rubs the very idea of the work out and into the everyday crowding of our everyday hold and, therefore, allows and requires the anti-interpretive erotics that Susan Sontag called for, in “Against Interpretation,” but which her commitment to the work, to its accompanying metaphysics of discretion, kept her from imagining? This set of ethical questions turns out to be ecological as well—what sustains us in, what sustains itself as, poetry; what poetry calls upon us to sustain in and of itself; is impure production’s anaproductive, degenerative and regenerative, madness. And it’s still going crazy! The prophetic and projective announcement of the work’s opening was also a description of a general socioecological poiesis—in imaginative compact with love as well as lunacy—brought more fully into relief in and by socioecological disaster. This openness, this dissonance, this residual informality, this refusal to coalesce, this differential resistance to enclosure, this sounded animateriality, this breaking vessel and broken flesh is poetry, one of whose other names, but not just one name among others, is blackness.

To think poetry in the name of (its) blackness is, crucially, to consider the work’s generative incompletion along with that of the one who is supposed to have made it. The work presupposes a productive self, an onto-mono-theological presumption with which many contemporary poets have tried to dispense, the trouble being that we have to account for the provenance and the fate of the ones who dispense it. (Un)fortunately, Kant and Adorno are always here to help us with that.

Genius is the talent (natural gift) that gives the rule to art. Since the talent, as an inborn productive faculty of the artist, itself belongs to nature, this could also be expressed thus: Genius is the inborn predisposition of the mind (ingenium) through which nature gives the rule to art (Critique of Judgment, § 46).

The proper [eigentliche] field for genius is that of the power of imagination [Einbildungskraft], because this is creative and, being less under the constraint of rules than other faculties, it is thus all the more capable of originality…. But every art still requires certain mechanical basic rules, namely rules concerning the appropriateness of the product to the underlying idea; that is, truth in the presentation of the object that one is thinking of. Now this must be learned by means of school rigor, and is indeed always an effect of imitation. However, to free the power of imagination even from this constraint and allow the talent proper to it to proceed without rules and swoon [schwärmen], even against nature, might deliver original folly; but it would certainly not be exemplary and thus also would not be counted as genius (Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View, 329).

Even in Olson, whom I have been shamelessly and religiously chanting in my head this whole time, there’s a massive problematic regarding the relations between genius, generative power, rule, concept, invention, concept, purposiveness and nature. The unnatural, the unprecedented, is there, awaiting discovery. You could ask: is genius that which gives or that which breaks the rule? And then you could say that giving and breaking are all devotionally bound up with one another. Let’s call this monkish criminality Monk’s Law since it is precisely in his flouting of rule, which is given in a bad, jurisgenerative romance with rule, that Monk requires and allows us to ask what is the nature of the rule that nature gives to art? If the proper (i.e. open and anoriginally improper) field for genius is imagination, because imagination flouts rule, then how do we speak of the rule that emerges from rule’s eclipse? Eclipse, but not absence, evidently, for every art requires, according to Kant, “certain basic mechanical rules, namely rules concerning the appropriateness of the product to the underlying idea.” This conception of rules is tied to a certain understanding of art as the representation of an idea that, in turn, underlies or undergirds the product/work. Kant speaks of this in relation to truth, “truth in the presentation of the object that one is thinking of.” But what if representation is the instantiation of a radical impropriety? What if truth is given in and by way of this dehiscence? This is something Adorno approaches by way of the notion of Bewegungsgesetz, which is usually translated as the law of motion, and by way of its relation to radical art’s primary and necessary darkness.

The inner consistency through which artworks participate in truth always involves their untruth; in its most unguarded manifestations art has always revolted against this, and today this revolt has become art’s own law of movement [Bewegungsgesetz] (Aesthetic Theory, 168-69).

To survive reality at its most extreme and grim, artworks that do not want to sell themselves as consolation must equate themselves with that reality. Radical art today is synonymous with dark art; its primary color is black. Much contemporary art is irrelevant because it takes no note of this and childishly delights in color (Aesthetic Theory, 39).

What if genius is a kind of extralegal lawfulness, or a legality given in the breaking/making of rule/s? This, again, would be Monk taking the law out—his anabenedictine frenzy; his anaprocessual practice; his holy, anoriginal, anaperformative folly. Does the rule, the concept, come first? Does a rule, an idea of form, come first, even before the informal, out of which form might be said to have been generated? How does an improvisation begin? From here you could ask two more questions: how does the entrance into a compositional song form begin? What are the social conditions for the form’s emergence? But you could also ask: How do we enter into an improvisation and how does the improvisation become recognizable (or does it ever become recognizable) as a work (of art) (schöne Kunst)? What if we refuse the distinction between fine art and handiwork, Monk’s dissident elbow work, the imposition of position in his halting dance, its extended recursion and still moving? What if practicing, what if the practice of art, is improvisation’s continual breaking and making of the rule of art, in jurisgenerative refusal, in unofficial recusal, in the continual putting into play, of the very idea of the work of art? Monk’s law becomes Monk’s Dream, his dramatic, anarkestral, anatraumatic Phantasie, which moves as if swarm and swoon were meant to be together in a Zukofsky translation, in deliverance of old-new foolishness, an exemplary and supernatural. But what if I’m moving independently of the notion of the priority of the concept/rule, which is to say before the distinction between invention and discovery, which is the ground, for Kant, upon which genius rests? What is it that we have in mind—what fleshly, fugitive, dispossessive animation of mind is given—when we begin to improvise? Do we have in mind a representation, a concept, a rule, a model, that instantiates the very possibility of what we will have done? Or is there a common social underground capacity for such representation—which will have always turned out to have been retrospectively projected onto our activity, with no beginning and no end, calling into question precisely as it calls into being (the very terms of) the distinction between the new thing and what was already there—that troubles mind and whatever it is that mind is supposed to have?

The representational theory of mind is supposed to deal with the problem of unchecked genius, unchecked generativity, unchecked sensual materiality: “the imagination in its lawless freedom needs to have its wings severely clipped by the understanding”: but what if the understanding is, itself, a function of the imagination and must, itself, be checked? Poetry is the highest verbal art, the place where this interplay of creativity and rule manifests itself in such a way as to prove, more or less constantly, the capacity for the supersensual to assert itself, after all, in triumph over the tumultuous derangements of original folly, of this constant tendency for unruly materialization and differing. Again, what’s at stake is a certain way of understanding how nature gives rule and how poetry re-gives that giving with austere extravagance. But when Olson speaks of the sentence as the first act of nature he does so within a general permission poetry takes—to push on and against that, to pass through the sentence and its passing, it’s having been passed, to submit the sentence to a terrible modality of passage, a horribly excluded middle passion, Philip’s extramusical plea, her complex pli, her deeply wrought and incalculable ply. Eternal, internal, discomposed and anacomputational commutation of the natural sentence is the solo gone awry.

This has been a pair of little pieces called blackness and poetry. This is blackness and poetry.