[-empyre-] Liquid Blackness- Week II: Aesthetics

Derek Murray derekconradmurray6719 at gmail.com
Mon Apr 11 05:20:45 AEST 2016


I found it very interesting when you made reference to a blackness
that “represents nothing, resembles nothing, and it is attached to
nobody’s identity”… but that it “simultaneously performs an incredible
amount of affective, aesthetic, and political work.” I thought that
really encapsulates how I’m beginning to think about the potential of
“liquid blackness.” Your commentary made me recall an interview I did
with Lauren Cramer regarding my comments on “liquid blackness.” See


I want to reiterate them briefly here because they relate very well to
how I’m formulating an aesthetic theory of blackness. As I mentioned
in my last post, my current work has been greatly influenced by
Georges Bataille and Julia Kristeva—specifically their work on base
materialism and abjection. Dominant ideological meanings around
blackness are very rooted in, and expressive of, an affective
sensorium that is often articulated as excremental form. It is in this
presence that various repressions and forms of inequity are expressed.
This highly metaphorical materialism is not always attached to black
bodies—even as it signifies a complex conglomeration of troubling
expressions of difference.

I saw this play out in the recent Jonathan Glazer film called Under
the Skin (2013). Under the Skin tells the bizarre tale of an Alien (in
human drag) who drives around Scotland in a van, preying on
unsuspecting men. Promising anonymous sex, the otherworldly creature
lures her victims into a dilapidated home, where they become
entranced, immersed in a black liquid, and ultimately harvested. It’s
a strange and unsettling film that, at least on the surface, explores
difficult themes around class and gendered violence.

The notion of “liquid blackness” relates quite literally to the film,
but particularly in relation to your articulation of a point at which
“blackness acquires immersive qualities, becomes seemingly touchable,
all enveloping, and often erotically charged.” Under the Skin images
blackness as a sort of creeping Otherness: an abject presence that
engulfs and overwhelms. It doesn’t merely take over; it extracts and
absorbs the essence of things. At least that is the ideological fear
of blackness that I think is well articulated in the film, even though
(in promotional materials) the narrative is framed as a discussion of
rape culture and as a reversal of gendered power dynamics. I find that
framing to be slightly reductive (if not dishonest), or intentionally
obfuscating, because the film depicts a black alien creature, that is
hiding in white skin—and uses some otherworldly form of black liquid
matter to extract human essences (leaving only the skin as a floating
ghostly shell). This mysterious organic alien technology
metaphorically alludes to the symbology of difference (as abjection),
and in my reading of the filmic text, expresses a kind of anxiety
around immigration and the increasing diversity of metropolitan
Europe. In the film, the threat of blackness is concealed under a
seductive, albeit predatory veil of normative white femaleness. But
the black matter also enslaves: it’s a trap, both for the Alien and
for the men who fall victim to it.

At the end of the film, when the human skin is torn and the black
Alien is revealed, we ultimately see this threatening blackness
destroyed. The peeling away of the skin in a sense gives birth to
blackness: liberates it, only to be punished through violent
annihilation (in this case, cleansing by fire). It’s a metaphorically
powerful scene and one that presents blackness as a danger that
lingers underneath an ideological veneer: a pleasing fiction of
assimilation, or normative shell that is also a repression. In a
literal sense, blackness tends to function in this way, as an
unknowable heart of darkness that goes unseen, yet is always visible.

Thank you to Lauren Cramer for providing the opportunity to present these ideas.



On Sat, Apr 9, 2016 at 4:49 PM, Alessandra Raengo <araengo at gsu.edu> wrote:
> ----------empyre- soft-skinned space----------------------
> I want to thank Derek for his extremely lucid introduction, emphasize some of the points of proximity between post-blackness and “liquid blackness” he has identified, offer a bit of context, and add one object that I believe helps explaining the idea of the “affective sensorium,” which is one of the main ways I understand blackness AS aesthetics.
> The mid-2000 discussion on and around post-blackness played an important part in the formation of the concept of “liquid blackness,” including Derek’s essay “Hip-hopHow to See a Work of Art in Total Darkness. One of the first dissertations I directed, by Michele Prettyman Beverly, explored an original lineage of the idea of post-blackness in artistic and popular culture experiments with enacting what she called a “metaphysical blackness”, where “metaphysical” stood for the transcendence, and expansion beyond, the limitations of the phenomenal body. Michele discussed Erikah Badu’s Window Seat alongside visualizations of HeLa cells, Lee Daniels’ film Shadowboxer next to Kanye West’s Runaway video and David Blaine’s illusionisms alongside Jean-Michel Basquiat and early hip-hop.
> Even in her work some of the traits that Derek describes already emerged:
> the pursuit of a non-coincidence between expression and identity; the valuing of material presence and sometimes as a force that moves between people.
> I mention this to honor some of the history that led to the idea of “liquid blackness,” but also to introduce an object that for me has done a lot of the theoretical work necessary to understand blackness as an erratic and constantly changing form of Strange Fruit. Sam Perry, one of my former graduate students, approached it as an example of ekphrastic poetry, which enlists the cooperation of the listener’s senses to first conjure up the visual culture of lynching—lynching photographs the song’s listener would have seen in a variety of places—and then re-route its erratic sensorial experience in unexpected directions and toward very opposite results. Throughout the song, the body of the listener is jolted several times in and out of competing sensorial experiences. The scent of magnolia leads to the smell of burning flesh, which then leads to its taste. The lynched body produces an invasive proximity – it fills the nostrils, colonizes the taste buds, disrupts the previously idyllic view. The wind sucks, the crows pluck and the body rots – all actions of consumption and incorporation to which the listener is the involuntary accomplice, for the simple fact that they are reconstructed across and over her own sensorium.
> From the point of view of “liquid blackness” the song also registers the active construction of this-thing-called-blackness, which emerges as the very product of the articulation of the affective sensorium the song conjures up.
> This blackness represents nothing, resembles nothing, and it is attached to nobody’s identity, even though it has been “secreted,” so to speak, by the lynched body. This blackness fills the space between and performs an incredible amount of affective, aesthetic, and political work.
>> On Apr 9, 2016, at 2:29 PM, Derek Murray <derekconradmurray6719 at gmail.com> wrote:
>> ----------empyre- soft-skinned space----------------------
>> Thank you Alessandra for the introduction!
>> I’ll begin by briefly summarizing some of my recent research interests
>> as they relate to the concept of “liquid blackness.” For the past
>> several years, I have been writing about the controversial notion of
>> post-black: a highly contested terminology meant to unpack the
>> conceptual, aesthetic, and political dimensions of a post-Civil Rights
>> generation of African-American visual artists. That research resulted
>> in the recent publication of my first book, Queering Post-Black Art:
>> Artists Transforming African-American Identity After Civil Rights
>> (I.B. Tauris, UK).
>> There are currently conflicting characterizations of post-black, but
>> in my critical formulation, the term signifies an attempt to reimagine
>> the parameters of what blackness means, socially, culturally,
>> politically—and especially, aesthetically. Above all things,
>> post-black represents a radical reconceptualization of the visual and
>> expressive rhetorics of blackness as we know it. The re-articulation
>> of African-American identity emergent in contemporary art suggests
>> that existing notions of blackness have underrepresented---or
>> completely failed to represent---constituencies within the community
>> whose experiences are not encapsulated by Civil Rights and Black Power
>> era value systems. Particularly, the historical emblems and visual
>> markers of hetero-normative blackness may not speak to the lives and
>> identities of individuals whose gender, sexual, and/or political
>> orientations often position them outside of dominant understandings of
>> black identity. The “post” in post-blackness is a space clearing
>> gesture of sorts: a radical searching for new forms of self-definition
>> that are unencumbered, yet deeply informed and enriched by the past.
>> Post-black ultimately opens up a needed conversation around the perils
>> and limits of identity formation—and asserts its significance in
>> visual culture as an iconoclastic queering of blackness, a gesture
>> that questions the fraught nature of its ideological and historical
>> parameters and visual rhetorics as potentially alienating and
>> non-inclusive of various form of difference (i.e. gender-based,
>> racial, sexual, political, non-binary, or otherwise).
>> I will not elaborate here on the specifics of post-black’s emergence
>> and ensuing debates, but I will say that I see “liquid blackness” as
>> doing something very similar, which is attempting to deeply expand and
>> complicate what blackness is—and to explore the complexities of its
>> expressiveness as residing in materiality, form and as a kind of
>> affective sensorium. I am currently completing a second book entitled,
>> A Materiality of Blackness: Critical Reflections on Contemporary Art,
>> Race, and Formalism. This new research builds upon Queering Post-Black
>> Art and critically considers and builds upon the relationship between
>> blackness and queerness, not only in terms of its sexual connotations
>> and politics, but also as a type of in-between-ness, a liminal space
>> of becoming that is indefinable. I see “post-black” and “liquid
>> blackness” as decidedly post-Civil Rights phenomena that demark
>> cultural positions that are beyond belongingness and, in many
>> respects, embrace a condition of illegibility. I tend to think of
>> “post-black” and “liquid blackness” as operations rather than
>> categorizations, or as rigid definitions. Rather that attempt to
>> remove blackness from the ideologically over-determined black body,
>> these notions explore its expressiveness as an affective material
>> presence—as something that isn’t simply visual, but also something we
>> can feel and smell: a presence that embodies the horror of detachment
>> that Julia Kristeva so effectively allegorizes in her theory of
>> abjection. In my recent writing on blackness and formalism in abstract
>> painting, I consider the materiality of blackness as an operation that
>> expresses itself as a kind of excremental form or base materialism.
>> This notion is in reference to Bataille’s Informe. Subversive in its
>> articulation of the belittled, the denigrated, and the repressed—
>> Informe is excremental form, but not in a literal sense, because it
>> resembles nothing: it has autonomy from fixed meanings. This
>> resistance or subversion of fixity that is embedded within form is
>> precisely the operation lies at the heart of “post-blackness” and
>> “liquid blackness.”
>> I look forward to building upon this discussion!
>> Derek
>> On Sat, Apr 9, 2016 at 5:43 AM, Alessandra Raengo <araengo at gsu.edu> wrote:
>>> ----------empyre- soft-skinned space----------------------
>>> Welcome to the second week of our monthly discussion on “Liquid Blackness: Formal Approaches to Blackness and/as Aesthetics”
>>> This week’s conversation will focus on aesthetics and will be lead by
>>> Derek Conrad Murray
>>> Thomas F. DeFrantz
>>> Marisa Parham
>>> Please see their bios below. Thank you all for agreeing to participate in this discussion and thank you again, Derek, for inviting me to moderate it.
>>> Before I turn the conversation over to Derek, I want to mention that the first writing I ever did about the idea of “liquid blackness” as an aesthetic category was a series of terms that I hoped could be evocative for both scholars and artists. In other words, I immediately attempted to practice the “liquidity” that the research group pursues as we move fluidly between the academic, the artistic, and the curatorial worlds.
>>> This piece of writing is available here: https://na01.safelinks.protection.outlook.com/?url=http%3a%2f%2fliquidblackness.com%2fabout%2f&data=01%7c01%7caraengo%40gsu.edu%7c352a531a8f5c4f4d73c708d360a4deb6%7c515ad73d8d5e4169895c9789dc742a70%7c0&sdata=XLDh%2fDtsAnIMNboxsmETHkJnrJiNWtt999J%2bZWKyJew%3d
>>> Here are the terms: sensuousness, affectivity, formlessness, penetration, fluctuation, modulation, absorption and assimilation, intensity, viscosity, density, slipperiness, elasticity, allure, vibration, unboundedness, virality, channeling, plasticity, organicity, and glide.
>>> The thought experiment they describe is one where blackness is approached as a “thing” which our collective critical act can hold in suspension and in the middle of our intellectual conversation. The terms were simply supposed to describe some of the ways this liquid “thing” might behave.
>>> This piece of writing has now been included in the catalog for Mark Bradford’s solo exhibition "Scorched Earth"  at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles (2015), curated by Connie Butler.
>>> I’ll now turn it over to Derek.
>>> Alessandra
>>> Derek Conrad Murray is an interdisciplinary theorist specializing in the history, theory, and criticism of contemporary art, African-American and African Diaspora art and culture, Post-Black art and aesthetics, theoretical approaches to identity and representation, critical issues in art practice, and the methodologies and ethics of art history and visual studies. He is Associate Professor in the History of Art and Visual Culture Department at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Murray has contributed to leading magazines and journals of contemporary art and visual culture such as American Art, Art in America, Parachute, Art Journal, Third Text, and Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art (Duke University Press), where he currently serves as associate editor. Murray is also a member of the editorial advisory board of Third Text. Murray’s most recent article “Notes to Self: The Visual Culture of ‘Selfies’ in the Age of Social Media,” was published in Summer 2015 in Consumption Markets & Culture. Murray is the author of the book Queering Post-Black Art: Artists Transforming African-American Identity After Civil Rights (London: I. B. Tauris, 2015).
>>> Thomas F. DeFrantz is Professor and Chair of African and African American Studies at Duke University, and director of SLIPPAGE: Performance, Culture, Technology, a research group that explores emerging technology in live performance applications. Books: Dancing Many Drums: Excavations in African American Dance (Errol Hill Award, University of Wisconsin Press, 2002),  Dancing Revelations Alvin Ailey's Embodiment of African American Culture (de la Torre Bueno Prize, Oxford University Press, 2004), and Black Performance Theory, co-edited with Anita Gonzalez (Duke University Press, 2014). Creative: Queer Theory! An Academic Travesty commissioned by the Theater Offensive of Boston and the Flynn Center for the Arts, and Monk’s Mood: A Performance Meditation on the Life and Music of Thelonious Monk, performed in Botswana, France, South Africa, and New York City.   He convenes the Black Performance Theory working group. In 2013, working with Takiyah Nur Amin and an outstanding group of artists and researchers, he founded the Collegium for African Diaspora Dance. which will stage the conference Dancing the African Diaspora: Afrofuturism in 2016. He recently taught at New Waves Institute in Trinidad, and ImpulseTanz in Austria.
>>> Marisa Parham is a Professor of English at Amherst College. She is also the Director of the Five College Digital Humanities Initiative, which focuses both on helping artists and scholars to integrate technology into humanities scholarship and creative work and bringing those disciplines to influence technological growth and spread.  Her research and teaching focuses on texts that problematize assumptions about time, space, and bodily materiality, particularly as such terms share a history of increasing complexity in texts produced by African Americans.
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