[-empyre-] Dark Church, Black Ether (Part 1); Liquid blackness Week IV: spatiality and suspension

J. Kameron Carter jkameroncarter at gmail.com
Sat Apr 30 01:28:24 AEST 2016

Dark Church, Black Ether (Part 1)

I would like to offer a few thoughts in contribution to this wonderfully probing and illuminating conversation. Liquid blackness raises for me questions about the im/possibility of black assembly or what I call “dark church.” In a book I’m putting the final touches on I disarticulate “church” from institutional religion in order to think about blackness as deregulated sociality. I draw on the etymology of the word “church” (ek-klesia; ek=out, klesia=assembly) to elaborate blackness as the practice of assembled out(sider)ness. Black assembly as perhaps liquid and atmospheric sociality. After a few words elaborating on the idea of “dark church,” I then consider one of the poems in Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric to think about this a bit more. In a second post, I offer an excerpt from a forthcoming essay by Sarah Jane Cervenak and me in which we develop the notion of “black ether,” which we believe is linked to questions of liquid blackness, suspension, and gathering or deregulated congregationality.


I’ll begin by saying a little something about my book project Dark Church: A Poetics of Black Assembly, particularly insofar as in it I engage varied African diasporic cultural productions (particularly poetry, visual art works, and music, or what Nate Mackey has called matters of “Sound and Sentiment” and “Sound and Semblance” and “Sound and Cerement”) to think the aesthet(h)ics of blackness.

In this work, I’m interested in how ocean and ether, how proliferating and mutating if not mutinous form and that which exceeds form (let’s call this the informal) converge atmospherically. One way of understanding blackness is that it indexes this convergence as the open, the “surround,” a convergence that gives rise to the thought of blackness as an “atmospheric condition,” as Ed Roberson has put it. Sky or atmosphere figure both flight and communion or an otherwise assembly. It indexes an/other world or another way of being in the world, an alternate world-ing, we might say, an extraneous reaching toward an earth that’s been both lost and yet ethereally not lost, notwithstanding the violence of a settler colonial world built on top of the earth. Such violence is never not a ge(n)ocidal practice of racial terror, just as such recovery of the earth is never not about breathing, which is to say about air, which is to say about the alternative, an alternative inhabitation of atmosphere. In this way, blackness—perhaps like wind or sky, the domain of (holy) ghosts—bears a surreal weightiness that’s both earthy and fleshy; it’s metaphysical in its physicality.

What might it mean by way of blackness to “see the earth before the end of the world” (Roberson again) and to take seriously that such possibly Du Boisian second-sightedness is atmospheric?


Claudia Rankine aids me in working through this question, the question of the atmospherics of blackness and the question of black “ek-klesiality,” blackness as sheer, queer out(sider)ness, as liquid sociality. There is a particular moment that comes to mind from Citizen: An American Lyric (which if nothing else is a text about how that lyric is always already broken to the extent that America is a lyric of racialized violence) that bears on this.

In a prose poem written in memory of Trayvon Martin, Rankine thinks about the im/possibility of kin, of assembly, of black communions. At issue is gathering with her brothers. Not just her biological brothers but even more her many brother who, she says, “are notorious.” Their notoriety or perhaps impropriety isn’t that they’ve been to prison. They’ve not. Nevertheless, “they have been imprisoned. The prison is not a place you enter. It is no place” (89).

Rankine then repeats herself: “My brothers are notorious.” What’s the point of such repetition? Rankine repeats herself both to indicate the contemporaneity or afterlife of slavery and to “nonperform” that would-be entrapment. That is to say, she enacts a poetics of black congregationality under duress, under conditions of wounding. Hence, there is never not more going on at the site of the wound. I’m thinking about the relationship between the wound and the blessing; I’m thinking about the relationship between severance and severalness or communion in/as broken multiplicity. Rankine’s poetic script unfolds as a meditation precisely on this phenomenon, on that scission and yet sociality of the dis/assembled. More still, Rankine stages her poetics by turning to atmosphere, to the “sky,” and by way of atmosphere to the ocean blue. 

The scission or the cut involves, Rankine tells us, the sky being made “pink” because it’s “bloodshot of struck, of sleepless, of sorry, of senseless, shush” (89). Antiblackness here is an atmospheric invasion, a weather condition, of “pink sky.” Given this, recovery, entails an improvisational movement through “pink sky” in atmospheric flight. The poem itself is this flight, ensemblic reach or extension. More still, it is an ethereal movement of sonic flight, of atmospheric address, whose yield is sky’s transubstantiation from pink to blue: “The sky is blue, kind of blue” (90).

How might we understand this trans-atmospheric movement from pink to blue sky? I think that something towards an answer to this emerges from the “moving poem” version of the prose poem that appears in Citizen. The moving poem is Situation #5 on Claudia Rankine’s website (www.claudiarankine.com) <http://www.claudiarankine.com)>. The prose poem that appears in Citizen is a kind of ethereal and liquid residue of website’s moving poem, which I read as a poem on “blackness as nonperformance,” to purloing a formulation from Fred Moten by way of Sora Han.

Moving across the screen of the moving poem are “brothers.” Against the backdrop of blackness’s movement across the screen is the sky, often bloodshot pink in color. This is the filmic movement of the images. But there’s more going on. While the images move across the screen, Miles Davis’s “Kind a Blue” plays in the background. Moreover, Rankine, reading her poem (which, it is also worth noting, at key points diverges from what appears in Citizen; poetic surplus), accompanies Miles’ “Kind of Blue.”

I argue that Miles’s music coupled with Rankine’s mused and musical voice combine as ether. They are atmospheric, the atmospheric that exceeds the weathered “pink sky.” This is the nonperformance of lyric, the announcement of an/other “lyric,” that of atmospheric blackness. Lyric here can’t help but be in quotations inasmuch as Rankine’s blue/s lyric arguably defies lyric’s grand presupposition: the sovereign “I” in propertied self-possession. “Sometimes ‘I’ is supposed to hold what is not there until it is. Then what is comes apart the closer you are to it. / This makes the first person a symbol for something. / The pronoun barely holding the person together. . . . / You said ‘I’ has so much power; it’s insane. . . . / the first person can’t pull you together” (71). Rankine’s atmospheric poetics is an insovereign ante-lyric.

More still, it is significant that “Kind of Blue” is playing in the background, for the blue here both recolors the pink sky and does so because it reflects the ocean into the atmosphere itself. There’s as relay between ocean and atmosphere here. Indeed what emerges is a poetics of oceanic and atmosphere. “Ictic-blueness,” as Mackey might say, an ethereally ictic poetics. Or in Rankine’s own words given in accompaniment to “Kind of Blue”:

On the tip of a tongue one note following another is another path. . . . Those years of and before me and my brothers, the years of passage, plantation, migration, of Jim Crow segregation, of poverty, inner cities, profiling . . . accumulate into the hours inside our lives where we are all caught hanging, the rope inside us, the tree inside us . . . a throat sliced through and when we open our mouth to speak, blossoms, o blossoms, no place coming out, brother, dear brother, that kind of blue. The sky is the silence of brothers all the days leading up to my call. . . . The sky is blue, kind of blue. The day is hot? Is it cold? Are you cold? It does get cool. Is it cool? Are you cool? My brother is completed by sky. The sky is his silence.” (89)

Or again as Rankine says later in Citizen “in memory of Mark Duggan”: “You tell the English sky, to give him an out” (117).
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