[-empyre-] Dark Church, Black Ether (Part 2); Liquid blackness Week IV: spatiality and suspension

J. Kameron Carter jkameroncarter at gmail.com
Sat Apr 30 01:29:51 AEST 2016

Dark Church, Black Ether (Part II)

In my prior post I invoked in my reading of Rankine’s Citizen the notion of “black ether.” I offer here a few lines from a forthcoming essay titled “Black Ether,” written with my friend and collaborator Sarah Jane Cervenak, to say a little more about this notion. As setup, in this part of the essay, we are thinking about that final scene in W. E. B. Du Bois’s novella “Of the Coming of John” in Souls of Black Folk where “black John” faces the ocean as a lynch mob is moving in to take him. The lynching is “suspended,” which is to say, in the story it neither happens nor doesn’t not happen. Rather, what is recorded is John’s facing the sea, “kind of blue.”


Suspension | Ether and the Sea

There is an otherwise movement that sounds. “Yonder, toward the sea, at the end of the path, came John slowly with his head down” (153). The final paragraphs of the story coalesce as a dissonant intersection of intimacies, regulated and deregulated. Black John kills white John, a move that ends the latter’s criminal exercise of state intimacy. We acknowledge the problematic positioning of Jennie, she becomes the figure where intimacy is both expressed and disavowed. In that way, one could read “Of the Coming” within a patriarchal telos, where black John’s wounded self is rehabilitated through the defense of Black women. However, we think something else is never not going on. Significantly, Jennie was part of the congregation without interest. Remember that earlier, she joined John in an unavailable liturgy by the sea. A liturgy without interest in its extraceremoniality. Could it be that John is trying to move with this alternate liturgy, a move that requires the assertion of an otherwise intimacy (one held and shared between him, Jennie, and their mother; one that reflects Burghardt’s earlier communion with his mother)? This otherwise intimacy, the unchurched tabernacle forged somewhere between the brown sea, the blue sky, “dark shadows,” and “sweet melody,” and out of reach of the white-haired men with blood-stained eyes, is at the heart of Du Boisian experimentalism, at the heart of what we mean by black ether.

This is all to say that this ethereal movement otherwise—black movement unheld by its ambulations into music, alongside unavailable dreams—disaggregates blackness from its entrenchment with state interest, with property, and with this world’s holdings, including the hold of narrativization itself. Which is to say, John is not even held by the need for a narrative end to his story, for while it is often assumed that the lynch mob and thus death gets hold of him, Du Bois crafts his story so as to leave the reader in suspense. Did the lynch mob actually get hold of John? Does death have him? Refusing to answer these questions, the story leaves John simply facing the ocean, held in an ethereal, surreal surround sound of ingress and egress, waves no sooner washed ashore than already moved back out. Ether and the sea. The violence of state capture, the life/death relay or the poles that animate the biopolitics of white supremacy and within which John was held, is by the end of the story itself suspended. Or perhaps better, a figure of the poetic and thus of insovereignty, John’s already wandered on. Unencroachable, untouchable. And so, if there is an ending to “Of the Coming of John” it is indeed the suspension of all ends. In short, this is not the end “e(i)ther.” Which might be a Du Boisian version of that Mackey formulation of the new night choir, that philosophic posse of diasporic mu-wanderers making their way through Jaipur, hot-rodding down Highway 101, boogie boardin’ off the “Globe Coast” in “Lone Coast Recension” singing that anthem: “held but not had.”

The sea as (their) enduring witness.

Black ether.
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