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

Derek Murray derekconradmurray6719 at gmail.com
Tue Apr 12 14:59:05 AEST 2016


Much of the discussion thus far has been wrestling with the problem of
blackness in the Western context that, as Alessandra has articulated,
is expressive of “affects that are modulated by race in order to
express radical difference.” This fact is a persistent barrier to
imagining a black expressiveness—particularly in the West—that is
somehow liberated from histories and present-day realities of racial
trauma, insult, and violence. African-American artistic traditions
(which is my current research focus), across genres, are deeply
communicative of these realities. The visual artists I write about are
engaged in critical and aesthetic projects that attempt to rewrite and
ultimately transcend the racialized barriers that restrict their
creative potential.

Much of this work has taken the form of an engagement with the black
body as an ideologically over-determined imago of mythic resplendence:
one that is deeply burdened, not as a kind of humanness, but rather as
social symbolism—something that bears the weight of societal scorn,
guilt, and politically correct sentiment. Because so much black
American art has been concerned with pain, visual producers associated
with post-blackness have attempted to construct a visual politics of
pleasure that rejects “lack” as the defining characteristic of black
representation and experience. Saidiya Hartman did great work that I’m
sure we’re all familiar with around the denial of black sentience,
which is very much at the root of (and justifies) subjection.

Recently, however, there is a turn towards formalism, the abstract,
and medium specificity as an escape from the limitations imposed by
the body. In a sense, this movement has been influenced by
intellectuals like Hartman, whose innovative work has meaningfully
foregrounded the importance of affect. African scholar Olu Oguibe has
done this as well, attempting to lift blackness out of its ideological
condition of unknowable alterity, famously stating: “there is always a
lot of light in the heart of darkness.” I think we strive to find that
light that exists beyond the overbearing “screen of blackness” that
Fanon speaks about, or Lacan’s “repertoire of representations”; the
means by which culture configures difference and through which social
identity is fixed upon subjects. I mention these interventions with
the intent to say that the desire to locate black expressivity, affect
and the sensorial beyond trauma has always been done—in fact, it
defines black creative traditions throughout the nineteenth and
twentieth centuries.


On Mon, Apr 11, 2016 at 6:31 PM, Alessandra Raengo <araengo at gsu.edu> wrote:
> ----------empyre- soft-skinned space----------------------
> Tommy
> thank you for such powerful suggestions and provocations. I don’t disagree in principle with anything you said and I would entertain the possibility that we have spent enough time already thinking about how a fantasy of black liquidity expresses mainstream desires for blackness without any love or consideration for black people.
> What if we, as you say, “pay attention to how we experience aesthetic possibilities and inventions that are of an for emergent black communities?” What if we refer to "black performance in order to construct modes of theorizing around black lives,” "what if we took this as a prelude to theorizing black presence?”
> A research project that the group has conducted around Larry Clark’s film Passing Through (1977) has attempted to focus on this more productive, vital and experimental mode of liquidity, with special attention to the idea of motion, and of a black imagination that refuses to be stopped, confined, limited to prescribed genres or forms. Here I only mention this film because for me it’s important to “show and tell”, in other words, to point to an “object” (however we define it, in order to include also the performative and ephemeral) that performs the theoretical work I am after. Or that challenges me to come up with different tools, as it happened in this case.
> Passing Through is a film about the arts and politics of the jazz ensemble as a site of experimentation of alternative forms of sociality understood as types of political praxis, as well as with the possibilities of an unbound imagination that expresses itself through free jazz.
> We discovered that the film itself, which takes free jazz improvisation as its formal principle (which also means a principle that constantly does and undoes “form") also, in many ways, resisted the tools of close textual analysis, which, as we know it in film studies but also in neighboring fields, require some form of “stilling” of the moving object (the moving images, in this case, a film that does not develop narratively but rather flows) and its fragmentation in smaller parts which then can be read in relations to one another. As a film about free jazz as a type of political praxis the film strove to be a constantly self-generating performance, an unbound experience of endless invention…. but in the (ultimately fixed) form of a film.
> For this and a number of other reasons—too many to list here— we found that the film did not want to be stopped.
> Of course, ultimately, we did approach it with some of the tools of film studies, but with some corrections: Lauren Cramer, for example, developed a close analysis that would unravel in a long longitudinal space; Kristin Juarez (another member of the group) and I pursued the visual ecology within which the film developed; and together, as a group, we created an “improvisational” research project that would unravel in the ways and modes dictated by the people who decided to partake in it, as a way to mirror, at least partially, the always changing/always productive dynamics of the jazz ensemble. You can get a sense of the project here: http://liquidblackness.com/passing-through/
> Ultimately, the project did produce unexpected results: an offshoot called Drawing Through, which translated the same spirit of experimentation with relationship between sound and image in a different performative work, showcased young African American artists’s responses to the film, and created a different end product: an LP.
> You can get a sense of this part of the project here:
> http://liquidblackness.com/events/drawing-through/
> http://artdesign.gsu.edu/prof-craig-dongoski-to-debut-collaborative-drawing-through-lp-album/
> This is a long way to say that: if, on the one hand, “liquid blackness” can and is a strategy of reading for form, on the other hand, it is, and can be, a strategy of reading for motion, when “motion” can index the richness, the presence, the vitality that Tommy has asked us to think about
> Thanks
> Alessandra
>>> On Apr 11, 2016, at 12:27 PM, Thomas F. DeFrantz <t.defrantz at duke.edu> wrote:
>>> ----------empyre- soft-skinned space----------------------
>>> hi friends, i didn't see that movie, so i can't offer any honest thinking-through of its mediation.  performance and breath are my main interests here, which can help us get out of the weird object-ness that surrounds blackness as a product or as a difference or as an excessiveness of productivity.  we surely can talk about people as metaphorical objects or as bodies, but what if we talk about each other as people, born and embedded within the water of liquidness, with complex shiftiness always available as a survival and sustenance resource?  this way we might turn our attention away from theories that force us into objecthood and imagine ourselves coming to sense with each other in various registers that shift in time.
>>> black performance has always been liquid, or post, or excessive, or many other things because it is concerned with adornment and elaboration, individual expression within a group dynamic, and responsiveness to its own communities.  black performance does not arrive in ultimate consideration of its form, which makes it so elusive and concrete at once; so water-to-ice-to-mist, to keep with the liquid-ing metaphor.
>>> black performance offers a thinking-through-experience-with-others by way of aesthetic invention.
>>> over time i’ve grown bored with employing white theoretical lenses to dissect white cultural products to imagine a mobilized black possibility.  for me, these methods highlight how many, or most, theoretical modes are most interested in white readerships.  if i’m going to craft theory for black people to refer to, it will be angry, outrageous, unruly, and it will not cite authors I know that its readers will likely not care about.  bell hooks offered us this possibility when she stopped using footnotes in her writing; i find that many younger researchers now feel there might be enough critical theory circulating to follow suit.  SO, for me, literary theory is found in the singing of the spirituals (which still happens, even as historical performance); and the pre-mains of psychoanalytic theory might be evident in line-dancing or J-setting.  of course there will always be space held for academic language as its own thing, as something that requires a politics of citation that sends readers digging in the crates to try to make sense of a reference. (if only I had seen that movie! gone to that conference!  read that essay!)  but blackness is surely saturated by experience, and its experience in presence, and in breath, creates possibilities that seem worthy of attention outside of or alongside academic interrogations.
>>> i refer to black performance in order to construct modes of theorizing around black lives. so my question would be, what if we took this as a prelude to theorizing black presence?  instead of looking at ‘white work’ or white responses to or creations of black objects (which is what the film sounds like in your various renderings of it); what if we pay attention to how we experience aesthetic possibilities and inventions that are of and for emergent black communities?
>>> (by considering performances, though, we may move outside of the preferred liquidity here; the performances seem to offer sedimentation in their translation to literary texts ... )
>>> wondering, and in motion, tommy
>>> -----Original Message-----
>>> From: empyre-bounces at lists.artdesign.unsw.edu.au [mailto:empyre-bounces at lists.artdesign.unsw.edu.au] On Behalf Of Alessandra Raengo
>>> Sent: Sunday, April 10, 2016 8:33 PM
>>> To: soft_skinned_space
>>> Subject: Re: [-empyre-] Liquid Blackness- Week II: Aesthetics
>>> ----------empyre- soft-skinned space---------------------- 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.
>>> Alessandra
>>>> 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.ac
>>>> ademia.edu%2f16568550%2fPost_liquid_blackness_Form_Satire_and_Clearing
>>>> _Gestures._A_Conversation_with_Derek_Conrad_Murray&data=01%7c01%7carae
>>>> ngo%40gsu.edu%7c4a6dd8417a1b4cedb09a08d361753efc%7c515ad73d8d5e4169895
>>>> c9789dc742a70%7c0&sdata=7a%2bQUr5%2fLUwb%2bqCgzlBpmVNPeC9ea70xkV1RHJ7l
>>>> ujg%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
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