HTDTWT 2017-2018: Paraontology and the Contemporary from Month to Month
Building on W. E. B. Du Bois prescient statement written in 1903 - "The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line—the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea" - Nahum Dimitri Chandler considers the ways in which paraontological thinking allows for this problem to become a site of possibility. In the essay ‘Of Exorbitance: The Problem of the Negro as a Problem for Thought’ Chandler reads blackness as “the general possibility of the otherwise” (2008, 351), blackness as in excess to oppositional framings of identity/anti-identity, and rather as a “vortex” built on “rhythmic turns” (2008, 347). For our final seminar for this semester we will read three texts in order to deepen our study of paraontology in the wake of our readings so far. We will think the ‘vortex’s rhythmic turns’ together with Jackie Wang’s oceanic feeling and communist affect, Denise Ferreira da Silva’s critique of separability and sequentiality, and dive into the submarine ‘sea ontologies’ as offered by Elizabeth DeLoughrey work on critical oceanic studies.
In her essay ‘Oceanic Feeling and Communist Affect’ Wang is concerned with ‘the creative, social, and political implication of oceanic feeling.’ Performing a paraontological thinking in her own text the author moves away from Freud’s notion of oceanic feeling as regression and other subsequent psychoanalytical writings on oceanic feeling as melancholic infantilism linked to femininity including works by Julia Kristeva and Jacques Lacan. Rather Wang seeks to think oceanic feeling together with Fred Moten’s essay ‘Blackness and Nothingness’ which builds on Chandler’s notion of the paraontological. She writes: [The] notion of paraontology dispenses with an idea of selfhood as a kind of property relation characterized by self-ownership. Being is not self-possession or even self-determination; it is movement and circulation. Another way Moten has formulated this notion of blackness is by describing it as both MORE and LESS than ONE… This dual quality of blackness as, on the one hand, nothing and less than one, and on the other as multiple and excessive, is why Moten insists on describing blackness as paraontological and not ontological… For Moten blackness unsettles the notion of home, for black being is marked by dislocation. But unlike Afro-pessimists such as Frank Wilderson and Jared Sexton, Moten does not believe that blackness amounts to social death. For him blackness is irreducibly social. As he writes, “The zone of nonbeing is experimental, is a kind of experiment, this double edge of the experiment, this theater of like and unlike in which friendship’s sociality overflows its political regulation” (“Blackness and Nothingness” 768).
The second text we will read is Denise Ferreira da Silva’s ‘On Difference Without Separability’ in order to return to the key issues raised in the first seminar where we grappled with questions of paraontology in relation to questions of time, space, matter and form. In this essay Silva thinks through quantum physics’ notions of non-locality and entanglement in order to undo the three ‘ontological pillars that sustain modern thought’: separability, determinancy, and sequentiality. She writes: ‘Towards re-imagining sociality, the principle of nonlocality supports a kind of thinking that does not reproduce the methodological and ontological grounds of the modern subject, namely linear temporality and spatial separation. In the nonlocal universe, neither dislocation (movement in space) nor relation (connection between spatially separate things) describes what happens because entangled particles (that is, every existing particle) exist with each other, without space-time. When nonlocality guides our imaging of the universe, difference is not a manifestation of an unresolvable estrangement, but the expression of an elementary entanglement.’
Finally, we will engage with the emerging interdisciplinary field of critical oceanic studies in order to rethink questions of the contemporary, history, and ecology. How is paraontology bound up with what DeLoughrey terms ‘sea ontologies?’ We will attend to the work of Caribbean thinkers in order to deepen our study of paraontology’s fluidities and overflows, the multiple and excessive, the vortex’s rhythmic turns. In turn we can also ask: How can we think of non-locality and entanglement through/in/ as sea, as movement and circulation, the undoing of self-determination, as social feeling and the historical contemporariness of the oceanic?
'Never being on the right side of the Atlantic is an unsettled feeling, the feeling of a thing that unsettles with others. It’s a feeling, if you ride with it, that produces a certain distance from the settled, from those who determine themselves in space and time, who locate themselves in a determined history. To have been shipped is to have been moved by others, with others. It is to feel at home with the homeless, at ease with the fugitive, at peace with the pursued, at rest with the ones who consent not to be one.'
Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons (97)
In the acknowledgements of his book Black and Blur Fred Moten elaborates on the phrase and act/field of ‘consent not to be a single being.’ He writes:
'“Consent not to be a single being” is Christopher Winks’s translation of Édouard Glissant’s phrase consent à n’être plus un seul. The occasion of Glissant’s utterance is an interview with scholar and filmmaker Manthia Diawara in which Glissant is asked to reflect upon the irony of traversing the Atlantic on the Queen Mary II while having written and thought so devotedly and brilliantly on the middle passage and its meaning. The term consent doesn’t merely defy but rather unravels a set of normative discourses on agency that are either denied to or unsuccessfully salvaged for those who remain in middle passage which is, as Cedric Robinson and Ruth Wilson Gilmore have said, eternal.'
For our penultimate seminar we will read Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake: On Blackness and Being so as to study the ways in which the middle passage is ‘eternal,’ how the ‘afterlives’ of slavery weather on, and the unsettledness produced (‘if you ride with it’) by the fugitives who move at a distance from those who easily claim a determined subject’s place in space and time. This is then always a question of ontology as Sharpe’s book’s subheading and the two quotes above suggest. Sharpe’s methodology is the interrogation of literary, visual, cinematic and quotidian expressions of Black life operating from within and producing what she names the ‘orthography of the wake.’ In her attempt to form a new grammar this orthography of the ‘wake’ attends to the term as at once literal, metaphorical and material. The ‘wake’ here then comprises all definitions of the word: the watery waves trailing behind a ship’s course, a ritual of watching over the dead, the coming to consciousness, realization and awareness. For Sharpe all meanings of the single term ‘wake’ are what imbue the being of blackness on the ‘wrong side of the Atlantic’ but not only, for as she insists one of numerous manifestations of the wake, for example, is also today’s movement of people on boats to Europe. Those currently seeking refuge on an other side of the Mediterranean are also in the wake, in the ship, in the hold, in the weather – being ‘in the wake’ is at once a history and an ongoing present of violence, death and dispossession. Thus, engaging with the ‘wake’ and the other three terms that make up the author’s orthography - the ‘ship,’ the ‘hold’, the ‘weather’ how can we deepen our engagement with the previous readings for this course so far? For instance, how does Sharpe’s ‘hold’ speak to Danielle Goldman’s ‘constraint’ and ‘tight places’ in their relation to improvisation and her question: who moves, who doesn’t’? How does Sharpe’s ‘hold’ and ‘ship’ speak to Harney and Moten’s undercommon feel and hapticality in the ‘hold,’ logisticality and the shipped? How does the unsettledness of time, space, object and subject (produced in the wake of the middle passage, the plantation, carceral capitalism (Jackie Wang) and the policing of the borders of the ‘terms of order’) instantiate the collapse, deconstruction and exposure of the materialized and militarized exclusionary and violent impulses of universalism’s terms of western liberal enlightenment’s political and social structures? How about Laura Harris’ motley crews and their aesthetic sociality of blackness in the wake? Finally, Sharpe’s work is crucial and yet the question remains: what is in excess of modernity’s determining ‘wake’? How does life, art and thought flee from Sharpe’s total climate of normative anti-blackness? How can a paraontology emerging from the eternal middle passage as always also necessary insurgent study, insistence and improvised inventive collective ways of being paradoxically cut across and blur the dialectic that is the condition of possibility of being ‘in the wake’? What does the consent not to be a single being have to do with a paraontological terrain and social practice as hold, fugitivity and escape moved with and through a feeling through others?
Vital animating forces of paraontological becoming are unleashed through singular and collective practices of improvisation. Throughout this course we have seen how improvisational practice is necessarily inherent to the thought experiments we have studied, from Da Silva’s ‘mathematical’ equations on blackness and being, to the motley crew’s constant invention as ‘improvised political assemblage’ and aesthetic sociality, to the improvised hapticality, solidarity, indebtedness, refusal and ongoing conversationality of the undercommons. All of the readings we have engaged with - alongside accompaniments of music, dance and art making attended to in class (including Adrian Piper, Hélio Oiticica, Silver Status, Rock Steady Crew, MC Bin Laden, Soul Sonic Force, the Arkestra) - implicitly or explicitly negotiate with western liberal democracies’ political and social categories of time, space, stance, movement, sound, bearing and being – the terms of order of racial capitalism’s violent histories and presents Cedric Robinson questions and deconstructs for us so as to reveal their illusory pattern and design.
Common to all these above different works is the improvisational and experimental and yet it is crucial to ask: what do we mean when we speak of ‘improvisation?’ In her important book I Want to be Ready: Improvised Dance as a Practice of Freedom, Danielle Goldman uncovers how the practice of improvisation entails a rigorous preparedness for unpredictable and shifting situations. She asks, ‘who moves? who doesn’t?’ and argues that improvisation’s sped-up, imaginative, expressive negotiations with constraint defines its political potential. She insists that improvisation should not be understood as a simple moment of liberation for a body seeking a desired end point devoid of constraints: ‘[i]mprovised dance literally involves giving shape to oneself and deciding how to move in relation to an unsteady landscape,’ and is a practice that ‘involve[s] an on-going stylization of the self where one both respects the constraints of reality and tries to violate them.’ Furthermore, Goldman reminds us that the reconciling with, or successful surpassing or resistance, to a set of constraints in effect only leads to another set of new constraints and that improvisation is a constant negotiation ‘with shifting tight places’ grounded in the present,’ whether created by power relations, social norms, aesthetic traditions, or physical technique.’ We will read Goldman in order to attend to improvisations and choreographies in dance and their joining with improvisations and choreographies manifested in life, the limits of ‘tight spaces’ improvisation negotiates with, and the limits of understanding improvisation as mere flight from formal constraint. Drawing from the work of diverse thinkers and dance practices such as Houston Baker, Ralph Ellison and Michel Foucault; the mambo, contact improvisation, motion capture technologies; and the work of dancers, musicians and choreographers including Judith Dunn, Bill Dixon and Bill T. Jones, Goldman proposes that we approach improvisation as incessant preparation, a rigorous training of making oneself ready for a range of potential situations, actions and constraints – improvised dance as politically powerful in its pushing against ‘static reifications of freedom.’
The aesthetic sociality of blackness is an improvised political assemblage that resides in the heart of the polity but operates under its ground and on its edge. It is not a re-membering of something that was broken, but an ever-expanding invention. It develops by way of exclusion but it is not exclusionary, particularly since it is continuously subject to legitimated, but always incomplete, exploitation. Its resources, which can never be fully accessed by the structures and authorities of legitimate political economy, are taken up by the politically and economically illegitimate in their insistence on living otherwise, in ways that resist repression, denigration, and exclusion and violate brutally imposed laws of property and propriety. It is a mode of intellectuality that, in the face of the vicious constriction of life, integrates the widest possible range of expression — corporeal, sensual, erotic, even violent.
Laura Harris ‘What Happened to the Motley Crew?’
How can we begin to think of the motley crew and the undercommons together? Does the motley crew reside in the undercommons? Is the motley crew the undercommons and vice versa? Bridging Laura Harris’ essay with Stefano Harney’s and Fred Moten’s The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study our fourth seminar will engage with the ways in which the undercommons is an ‘improvised political assemblage that resides in the heart of the polity but operates under its ground and on its edge’ and the ways in which, just like the motley crew, the undercommons always resists and escapes any attempts at easy categorization. We will think of this material and conceptual fugitivity as a performative refusal of settling, of fixing or locating being and meaning, and we will study study, question what we mean by study, and what this black study has to do with fugitive planning. We will consider the ways in which the undercommons, black study, and fugitive planning form formless formations full of disordering noise and dance (‘corporeal, sensual, erotic, even violent’) and what this being in constant motion can tell us about questions surrounding organization and our occupation within and transgression of institutional compartmentalization – being ‘in but not of’ and ‘the with and for.’ How are we all in but not of or for debt, policy, professionalization, governance, the ‘hold’? How does the undercommons hold us up in the hold? In attempting to think through these challenging questions we will trace the ways in which the undercommons are always a mode of intellectuality, cosmopolitanism and aesthetic sociality. These experimental and improvisational modes and practices of living otherwise, of being equally incomplete together in a never-ending rehearsal, are always tremoring within our study together, our doing theory and art together as we collaboratively refuse those terms of order refused to us.
For our third class of this year’s seminar ‘Paraontology and the Contemporary’ we will closely read Laura Harris’ 2012 essay ‘What Happened to the Motley Crew? C.L.R. James, Hélio Oiticica, and the Aesthetic Sociality of Blackness.’ Deepening our critical study so far of the terms of order and disorder, (the patterns of (anti)politicality, aesthetics, and problems of and for thought in and of space and time), Harris’ essay vitally engages with the motley category that is the ‘motley crew.’ According to Harris, the resistant, improvised and fugitive ontological dimensions of the motley crew are bound up with, whilst all the while inventing, the ‘aesthetic sociality of blackness.’ In their book The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic historians Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker introduce us to the motley crew as the revolutionary force that, as Harris notes: ‘emerged from the connections that formed between the disparate dispossessed peoples who composed the Atlantic proletariat of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and early nineteenth centuries.’ In this book the historians uncover this revolutionary collective force and mourn its demise. Harris’ intervention is to show that it is precisely the problems of thought generated by categorical thinking (ie. Linebaugh and Rediker claim that the motley crew disappears with the emergence of racial capitalism’s more institutionally structured fixed categories and separations such as black/white, proprietor/worker) that blind the historians from discerning ongoing motley crew life and living. Harris studies some of the works of Trinidadian C.L.R. James and Brazilian Hélio Oiticica, where they in turn study the practices of cricket playing and samba dancing respectively, to uncover the ways in which James and Oiticica engage with the motley aesthetic sociality of blackness and in so doing brings our attention to forms and methods of motley crew insurgent study and creativity; different forms of aesthetic sociality always already before, beyond, in anticipation of and escaping our study of these forms of collaborative motley undercommon being and doing.
Our second seminar exploring issues and methods of ‘paraontology and the contemporary’ will continue engaging with questions surrounding space and time by turning toward a thinking through the history of ideas of the West as proposed by Cedric Robinson in his book The Terms of Order. In this scathing and prescient critique of the ‘order of politicality’ Robinson seeks to ‘abuse the political consciousness’ by uncovering the mechanisms of power and the myth of leadership and authority; and by detailing radical epistemologies and ontologies preceding and exceeding those mechanisms. Thus, the author troubles naturalized given political orders such as ‘democracy’ and argues that these political concepts and our consciousness of them, as Erica Edwards in her forward notes, must be treated as objects of inquiry. This he does through a counter-scientific method that opens up vital ways for the study of the history of power. Importantly Robinson points to kinship structures and experiments in stateless social life such as the Ila-Tonga people largely living in Zambia who, in their anarchic disordering and principle of equal incompleteness, reject the hierarchical individualization and social contracts inherent to Western order, historicization, political organization, racial capitalism.
At the closing of his chapter ‘The Order of Politicality’ Robinson writes:
And so order is not only represented by the visual experience of patterns seen suspended in one space and one time, but perceived as well as suspended through successive dimensions of space and periods of time. That is to say that order can be seen in design - in place, or order can be seen in lawfulness - over time. And social order, a conception which emerges from order, can presume, too, fundamentally different images of objectness and continuity. Conceptualizations of social order can range from the design of Aristotelian and Burkean "constitutionalities" and anarchistic rationalisms to the law-fulfilling dialectic of Hegel and the historicism of Marx - from station to process. In the end, of course, they amount to the same thing: "the perceptual reduction of chaos," the ensuring of the existence of an identifiable, objective reality.
Thus it can be said that order as a presumption concerning human existence proceeds from looking at things.
If the structuring of order can be discerned in design over space and time through processes of looking at things, conceived both visually and conceptually, then this brings us back to the important disruption of Kantian ethico-juridical and metaphysical categories in Da Silva’s essay we engaged with in our previous class. This is where the second reading for this seminar comes in: Adrian Piper’s Out of Order, Out of Sight: Vol 1. We will read Piper, a Kantian philosopher and conceptual artist, in collaboration with Terms of Order. Piper writes of her working on ‘the level of abstract thought about space, time and the objects within them; their materiality, concreteness, their indefinite variability, their indefinite serial progression through stages, their status as instances of abstract concepts’ (p. 225). How does her work on the indexical present; on abstraction, objecthood and seriality; noumena, concepts and categories; xenophobia, racism, and being out of order and out of sight converse with Robinson’s theoretical and practical disordering of objective reality? How can a close reading of these two texts as accompaniments, as different instances of the black radical tradition, enable a rethinking and reimagining, a re-valuation and valuing of, in Robinson’s words, a ‘whole other way of being?’
Seminar 1: Friday October 20th, 2017
The 2017-18 seminar ‘Paraontology and the Contemporary’ will begin by engaging with questions around history, time, materiality, and the contemporary. We will do so by reading two essays: ‘What is the Contemporary?’ by Giorgio Agamben and ‘1 (life) ÷ 0 (blackness) = ∞ − ∞ or ∞ / ∞: On Matter Beyond the Equation of Value’ by Denise Ferreira da Silva. Both texts can be read as accounts of the horizons of existence. Agamben seeks to disrupt time by thinking the contemporary in relation to Nietzsche’s thesis of the ‘untimely,’ arguing that contemporaneity abounds with disjunction, dissonance and the obscurity of the present. Da Silva’s text also grapples with the mattering of the obscure and troubles the fixed subject position inherent in the determinancies of knowing. In reading these two essays together we will think through historical anachronism, formal determination, matter as ‘substance without form’ and questions of ontology, the object, (epistemological) violence and value.