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

Alessandra Raengo araengo at gsu.edu
Mon Apr 11 10:33:26 AEST 2016

Thank you for your commentary on Under the Skin, Derek, which is such a powerful text that deploys black (liquid) matter to perform the troubling work of difference you have just described. 

I want to make a quick summary and add one comment. 

During the first week, and partly thanks to Murat’s questions, we have reflected on the relationship between black matter (or black as color, perhaps also as pigment) and racial blackness, and we have asserted the impossibility to disentangle the two. 

This is because a lot of the affects that blackness elicits in a Western context are modulated by race in order to express radical difference. 

I have been also arguing that they express a tremendous amount of desire and the way the mysterious black pool performs in Under the Skin is a great example of that. It seems to be indeed conjured up by the very encounter between terrestrial and alien desire as, in some ways, the ideal place where the two species should successfully commingle. Yet, as we discover, the black pool immediately becomes a medium for the harvesting of the unknowing victims. 

What I think we see here is the multivalence of liquid blackness in the sense that it describes both blackness as a type of pornotopia (I am borrowing the term from Darieck Scott’s book Extravagant Abjection), which is where, rather than abjected, difference is turn into a “lubricant", as well as a process of violent secretion. This secretion, it is important to add, has been elaborated first and foremost in the context of racial blackness: think about the relationship between blackface makeup (as used in minstrelsy), and racial blackness.

What is ultimately “liquid” about Under the Skin (or even meta-liquid) is the fact that “blackness” in the film distributes these competing affects and their labor across racial lines: for example, it is the white men who are being harvested but it is ultimately the black alien creature who is raped at the film’s closure and presented in a vulnerable light. Indeed the film provocatively flips the relationship between predator and prey several times over. (last year at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies Conference I heard three really nuanced readings of the film by Elena Gorfinkel, Lucas Hildebrand and Amy Herzog, which were highlighting some of these aspects and following some of these reversals. The essays are forthcoming, I believe, from the Quarterly Review of Film and Video). 

In other words, another “liquid” dimension of “liquid blackness” is the fact that it can so poignantly express what Anne Cheng describes as “racial melancholia,” which is the affect produced by a fixation with a racial object that is both desired and abhorred, injected and reviled, metabolized and expelled, obsessed over and denied. 

It is important to highlight this ambivalence about the liquid blackness that pervades the film because it is also already contained in the idea of “liquid blackness” as a pressure point, insofar as it is a concept that raises issues and highlights points of contention but it does not reconcile them or synthesize them. In this sense, it is only—hopelessly, disturbingly, but also perhaps productively—descriptive. 

Thank you, Derek, for bringing this up since the very beginning of the conversation of “liquid blackness” (i.e. when you did this interview with Lauren Cramer after keynoting at our first liquid blackness Symposium), and for bringing it up agains in this context.


> On Apr 10, 2016, at 3:20 PM, Derek Murray <derekconradmurray6719 at gmail.com> wrote:
> ----------empyre- soft-skinned space----------------------
> Alessandra,
> 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
> here:
> https://na01.safelinks.protection.outlook.com/?url=http%3a%2f%2fwww.academia.edu%2f16568550%2fPost_liquid_blackness_Form_Satire_and_Clearing_Gestures._A_Conversation_with_Derek_Conrad_Murray&data=01%7c01%7caraengo%40gsu.edu%7c4a6dd8417a1b4cedb09a08d361753efc%7c515ad73d8d5e4169895c9789dc742a70%7c0&sdata=7a%2bQUr5%2fLUwb%2bqCgzlBpmVNPeC9ea70xkV1RHJ7lujg%3d
> 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.
> Cheers!
> Derek
> 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
>>>> 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).
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