water through cupped hands

h č-b — “beyond influence”

Octavia E. Butler (1993) Parable of the Sower, p3:
“All that you touch | You Change. All that you Change | Changes you.”

Sara Ahmed (2017) Living a Feminist Life, p17:
“Each of us had different copies, some of them tattered and well read, worn, and, as it were, lived in. You can, I think, live in books: some feminists might even begin their feminist lives living in books. Participating in the group with books made me aware of how feminist community is shaped by passing books around; the sociality of their lives is part of the sociality of ours. There are so many ways that feminist books change hands; in passing between us, they change each of us.”

María Puig de la Bellacasa (2017) Matters of Care, p20:
“In this direction, touch expresses a sense of material-embodied relationality that seemingly eschews abstractions and detachments that have been associated with dominant epistemologies of knowledge-as-vision. Touch becomes a metaphor of transformative knowledge at the same time as it intensifies awareness of the imports of speculative thinking. In other words, the haptic disrupts the prominence of vision as a metaphor for distant knowing as well as the distance of critique, but it also calls for ethical questioning. What is caring touch in this context? Here, somehow paradoxically, thinking touch with care troubles the desires for immanent proximities as susceptible to reproducing the negation of mediations and the nonevidence of ethical reciprocity. The terrain around which I articulate these arguments is the revaluation of the sense of touch, from cultural theory to expanding markets of haptic technologies. Instances of haptic fascination expose not only the potential of thinking with literal and figural meanings of touch but also the temptations of idealizing materiality. Yet engaging speculatively with experience, knowledge, and technology as touch allows us to explore a possible transformation of ethos that could be brought by more careful touching visions and the forms of ethical obligation they entail. In particular, touch’s unique quality of reversibility, that is, the fact of being touched by what we touch, puts the question of reciprocity at the heart of thinking and living with care.”


When we think about how knowledge is made (and “transmitted”), the model we first reach for is “influence.” Maybe we use a symbol: think of knowledge as a river (influence flows, after all). That same river is imagined to have an “origin.” And there we imagine, and delineate, the holy site of originary inspiration. The wellspring.

It’s an epistemological model that is very influential – one that has blossomed, Bloomed. But it has limits, or at least seeds complications. The river itself is not isolated or discrete. The water that forms its body is connected to all water, everywhere; there is only one water on planet earth. But perceptual divisibility has got us into trouble. (In M Archive, Alexis Pauline Gumbs writes: “this is what it takes. the strength of no separation. the bravery of flow. the audacity of never saying this is me, this is not you. this is mine this is not yours. this is now, this was not ever before.”) And then there’s Heraclitus, of course, and his river fragments. “Into the same rivers we step and do not step, we are and are not.”

Three passages quoted above complicate the inevitability of flow; flow which is so slippery that it transforms into inheritance (property), ancestry (blood). María Puig de la Bellacasa emphasizes the reversibility/reciprocity of touch: when we touch, we are touched. This challenges the structure of agency supposed by the activeness of the active voice, the passiveness of the passive. Something moves in both (several/many) directions. Reciprocity might take place in a circle of exchange: books pass between readers, emphasizing the circular shapes of circulation (Ahmed). Beyond that: there are consequences to all exchanges/circulations: all that you touch, you change; all that you change, changes you (Butler).

happy new year

h č-b — “find your people”

A mentor of mine once described the approach that he and his contemporaries used to take when they wanted to get an article published. They would put their manuscript in an envelope and send it off to a journal. If the article was rejected, they would take the returned manuscript out of its first envelope and put it in a new one, freshly addressed to another academic journal. They would repeat this process until the article was accepted. I sometimes tell this anecdote to my own students now as a parable of persistence (although in my version the manuscript doesn’t stay the same, but gets revised in response to the feedback within the rejection).

The moral of the story seems ultimately to be that there is a place for our work out there, somewhere. And: rejection is never a definitive judgement of value. But an important part of this tale is the fact that not everyone can receive what we want to give; not everyone can hear what we want to say. In fact, it is not only a parable of persistence, but a parable of calibration. The message here is not only (or necessarily): keep trying and you will make it, but: keep looking for the people who are ready to hear you, to engage with you, to work with you. In the parable of calibration, the act of realignment happens on an internal level as well as an external one: internally, we can look at what we have made and investigate the possibilities of adjustment; externally, we turn to look for receptive collaborators — people we can fruitfully be in conversation with. I think now about the times in my life when I have offered up something and met a brick wall — and at those times, the brick wall was all I could see. I didn’t consider that I could turn slightly and take another path, or even that there were any other paths. Instead, I saw the blockage as evidence of my own failure. This is a very lonely place to be. But a manuscript in a new envelope will eventually find a reader.

the art of the unfinished painting

Over the summer, I started painting regularly for the first time in my adult life. Like everyone, I was looking for some relief. And even though writing is usually my go-to for creative practice, I didn’t want to write. I wanted something that I could do which I wouldn’t end up using as a measurement of myself. Writing is a big part of my job — there is a way to separate, or at least fan out, academic writing and other kinds of writing (and, yeah, I did write a poem or two) — but in the end I looked to painting as something which would help me free myself from the idea that anything I made had to be any good. With writing, I was inevitably hitting against the fear that whatever I made would ultimately reflect me, be the mirror of me. And I was, to be honest, worn out from that way of thinking.

With painting, I never know where to begin. And here’s the difference between writing and painting for me specifically: ideas for things to write occur to me all the time, even if I don’t actualize all of them; I almost never know what to paint. I don’t have the instinct. When I first started painting, I found famous originals to try to replicate, looking through online museum holdings, an MFA art book I have to hand, and taking screenshots of the artists I follow on instagram:

One of the things I like most about painting is that I really have no idea what is going to happen once I put brush to paper. (With writing I generally have an idea — and I usually have a very specific plan — but maybe I need to challenge myself more by writing in different genres.) And with the painting, it very often didn’t (and still doesn’t) work out. Like, at all. Many of them were bad, and many continue to be bad. But because I was going into it without the pressure for the painting to be anything, I was a bit more free to take in whatever I was able to about the experience.

Most of the summer (with a few exceptions) I was painting on 4×5¾ Fabriano postcards — once I was done, I would put them in a mailbox and send them off to friends and family. Basically, my idea was: I can paint, and not get too attached to the outcome. And I can let the people I love and miss know that I am thinking of them during this time of deep isolation. I learned things from replicating the paintings of others, and eventually started making my own — again, very haphazardly and experimentally. I painted abstractly, and — naturally, given our confinement — I painted some domestic scenes (mostly spouse and dog). I participated in several amazing and life affirming life drawing sessions run by the UK based anti diet riot club. And I started sending friends more elaborate paintings based on their interests. After a time, I eventually started using gouache as well as watercolour.

Somewhat recently, I started another replication — this time of a Renoir painting (c. 1869) in the MFA:

While I did do some planning (i.e light sketching — more than I usually do!), I will not fit the entire painting onto the paper. I will only manage a portion of the original because of this. (In this respect, I am — accidentally, trust me — replicating the exclusion style which Manet used on purpose.) I started the painting weeks ago, and for a while didn’t think I was going to continue. And yet every now and then I kept picking it up. And lingering on the details. As of writing, this is as far as I’ve got:

I have to say that, putting together this blog post, I cannot believe how much painting I have actually done over the last few months. I’ve been painting here and there, now and then, in dribs and drabs. A small thing which I took up as a way to find a sense of personal relief and to be expressive without also being self-constraining has resulted in a number of these artefacts. It’s hard for me not to see a message in all of this, as well as in the unfinished painting. I thought I had already learned the lesson (from writing my book) that large tasks are accomplished by small and sustained daily efforts. But, again, I didn’t enter into the whole painting thing expecting anything in particular, or trying to achieve anything in particular. In fact, it was precisely the notion of “achievement” that I was trying to avoid — because I think humans should do pleasing and meaningful things for no reason other than the fact that they are pleasing and meaningful. I may or may not finish that painting and that’s fine — because finishing is not the purpose of the painting. Painting the painting is.

Painting has also been a tool of counternarrative for me: it has shown me that I’m capable of something that I had — I now realize — tried to convince myself that I shouldn’t do, and couldn’t do. The should part comes from the fact that so much of contemporary life is geared towards work and productivity — but it is possible to work and to cultivate the parts of life that are in service of nothing other than vibrance and vitality of living. The could part connects to larger patterns of self-narrativizing, wherein we set our own limits by imagining our capabilities in narrowly defined ways. Honestly, it does make me wonder what else I could do, if I found a way into the thing that was meditative, meaningful, pleasing — and not geared towards an external goal. And to be honest, having this thought does fill me with hope. As for the unfinished painting, well, it stands for the time within which it was produced: a time of deep pain, uncertainty, and clearing away, which nonetheless created the conditions for looking inward, for cultivating practice and patience, and for being tender enough to appreciate the things which are surprising and incomplete.

Paul Cézanne, Fruit and a Jug on a Table (c. 1890-1894), Boston MFA
Paul Gauguin, Still Life with Teapot and Fruit (1896), Metropolitan Museum New York
Edna Boies Hopkins, Love Apples (c. 1910-1913), Boston MFA
Frank Walter, Black Trunk, Pink and Blue Sky
Georgia O’Keeffe, Pink Tulip (1926), Baltimore Museum of Art
Emil Nolde, Irises, Boston MFA

Note on Frédéric Neyrat “The Black Angel of History” // leukocentric perception

Frédéric Neyrat, translated by Daniel Ross (2020) “THE BLACK ANGEL OF HISTORY: afrofuturism’s cosmic techniques.” Angelaki Journal of the Theoretical Humanities, Vol. 25, Iss. 4. p123.

What this impoverished cosmology represses is the dark space between the planets, interplanetary and interstellar space, the overwhelming darkness that is predominant throughout the universe: observable matter constitutes only 5 per cent of the universe, to which dark matter adds 27 per cent and dark energy 68 per cent, both of which can be detected only indirectly via their effects. At the cosmological level as at the anthropological and political levels, what is Black is repressed, ejected from the centre, scotomized or subjected to the Anthropocene and its crutch called New Space.

In his recent article, Frédéric Neyrat identifies (p122) three ways in which both science fact and science fiction are impacted by perceptive obstacles: 1) anthropocentrism (humans are the centre, and the measure, of reality); 2) geocentrism (the earth is the centre of reality, and a focus point of recursivity: “the Anthropocene is incomprehensible without the reversal of the Frontier”); 3) leukocentrism: Greek λευκός = “light”, “bright”, “white” (human cosmology extends the constructions of whiteness, foreclosing and negating Blackness, into the universe). Essentially, when we imagine ourselves beyond planet earth, we cannot help but extend what we already are into a space which is more unknown to us than known: we bring with us the prerehearsed conflicts of planet earth, and mirror earth back to itself in these cosmic performances.

“Dark matter” is more than material or metaphor: it testifies to existences that are not perceptible via the ways of seeing that we already have; its presence is implied. The presence of dark matter in the universe — as the majority, in fact, of what exists (“observable matter constitutes only 5 per cent of the universe”) — implies not simply alterity (i.e. “otherness”), but deep, systemic misperceptions and misconceptions. What we canonize, what we study, what we know: these are the things that are accessible to us with the tools which we have at the moment (tools which derive from a tradition which is inherently recursive); but these data points, which we treat as a totality — as the most important — nonetheless cannot help but imply the existence of a vast system of experiences beyond those which our objects of study record.

Neyrat writes of “scotomization”, a term developed by the psychoanalytic tradition, which ultimately derives from the Greek word σκότος (“darkness”); while the psychoanalysts used it to describe a process of internal repression (“blotting out” harmful experiences), Neyrat activates the blackening, i.e. perceptively negating aspects, of scotomization: the process of making Black, and therefore removing from the centre people and things which cannot be made sense of by a leukocentric metaphysic. What is essentially missing from the tripartite perceptive trap — generated out of the imagination of white terrestrial humanity — is an embrace of the universe as a continuum within which earth exists, rather than a figuration of alien land ripe for conquering. On earth, this script plays out in the perceptive failure to see the “wake” of violence against Black people, as Christina Sharpe (2016: 12) writes in In the Wake: On Blackness and Being:

The means and modes of Black subjection may have changed, but the fact and structure of that subjection remain.

That is, the same perceptive failure that would see the earth outside of the universe, even in the act of trying to situate it as such, (“observable matter constitutes only 5 per cent of the universe”) is echoed in the perceptive failure to see the current state of Black subjection as not simply an outcome, but a metaphysical simultaneity, of original acts of violence now deemed “historic”, rather than ongoing, or contemporaneous; as Sharpe (2016: 41) quotes Toni Morrison: “Everything is now. It is all now.”

lessons from quarantine // “how to”

After it started, I was basically non-verbal. I found reading impossible and lived in a daily fog. Eventually that changed. I found myself preoccupied with details. When you can’t go outside, you go deeper inside. Suddenly I was reading a lot.

In Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower (chapter 5), we get a lesson on reading:

Image

“Is there anything on your family bookshelves that might help you if you were stuck outside?”
“No.”
“You answer too fast. Go home and look again. And like I said, use your imagination. Any kind of survival information from encyclopedias, biographies, anything that helps you learn to live off the land and defend ourselves. Even some fiction might be useful.”
She gave me a sidelong glance. “I’ll bet,” she said.

Every part of human experience needs guidance, needs theorization, needs contextualization. This doesn’t seem to be true at first because it often feels so easy to step out into the world without actively having to situate yourself in it first. And certainly we get a lot of advice, a lot of messaging, a lot of conditioning about how to be in the world, whether we actively seek it or not. These lessons may or may not also come in textual form. Sometimes those didactic processes — active or passive — end up doing a lot of damage. We focus on some things, and not others. We relate to people in ways that are harmful. We learn to hierarchize human worth.

How to Look After the Body.
How to Cultivate Healthy Desire.
How to Keep Connected with Family.
How to Grow and Tend to Friendship.
How to Maintain Boundaries with the Internet.
How to Relate to and Respect Yourself.
How Not to Disappear into Your Work.
How to Use Your Voice Without Fear.

Some imagined book titles. There are so many “how to” books out there; so many of them advise constriction, though. And so many of them are aimed at reducing or changing external appearances. If I’ve learned anything during this time (…debatable), it’s the lesson of paying attention to the interior. There are details there that often don’t get attention. Once you realize something is there, however, you might find yourself wanting to learn more about it. To learn to look after it. Once the tide of regular life has gone out, leaving behind the artefacts of the sea floor, you might begin to take stock of what was always present but not yet in view.

Note on Adrienne Maree Brown “Emergent Strategy” // Future Ancestors

Adrienne Maree Brown (2017) Emergent Strategy. AK Press. p14.

Adrienne Maree Brown’s work is oriented towards the future. This futurism draws deliberately on the imaginative possibility of science fiction, as she writes in Emergent Strategy (p16):

I would call our work to change the world “science fictional behavior” — being concerned with the way our actions and beliefs now, today, will shape the future, tomorrow, the next generations.

In particular, Brown draws on the work of Octavia Butler, whose science fiction dramatized the present moment by extending it into the future (p17):

Octavia wrote novels with young Black women protagonists meeting aliens, surviving apocalypse, evolving into vampires, becoming telepathic networks, time traveling to reckon with slave-owning ancestors. Woven throughout her work are two things: 1) a coherent visionary exploration of humanity and 2) emergent strategies for being better humans.

Brown’s work likewise asks us to orient ourselves towards the future. One piece of this is her interest in framing ourselves as “future ancestors.” I am struck by this phrase, with its time travel implications. Because on the one hand, naming myself a future ancestor opens the possibility of imaginatively investing the shadowy figures, the precursors of the past, with the flesh and blood, the intellect and the emotionality, which I currently possess, which in turn does something to complexify the notion of ancestral authority: personalizing it, humanizing it. If can see yourself in those who came before, crucially, you might be able to see both your debt to, and your impact upon, those who are still to come. In this way, the past and the future are kept in relationship via a kind of tensility — and a live wire. What we do now simultaneously draws on the past and shapes what comes next. We’re usually pretty good about paying attention to how the past influences us; and we’re certainly accustomed to invoking the past to give meaning to what we do in the present. But how we relate our present actions to the future is something that takes some conscious effort. Brown asks:

How can we, future ancestors, align ourselves with the most resilient practices of emergence as a species?

In addition to adjusting our vision to more actively include the future as well as the past, Brown asks us to broaden out the very notion of ‘ancestry.’ In this context, being a “future ancestor” does not mean simply considering the mother of your mother or the child of your child, but the generations of humanity as a community, i.e. “as a species.” In fact, understanding the family unity as something beyond a bloodline is a crucial component of the kind of future vision Brown asks us to use; an attachment to a narrowly defined idea of family is an invitation to other the humans who are not included in that category.

Roman carnelian intaglio set in a ring, 1st c. BCE/CE. The Walters Art Museum. Aeneas carries his father, Anchises, and leads his son, Ascanius, away from Troy as it burns (cf. Aen. 2.707). Present facilitating both past and future. Note that Aeneas did abandon his wife, Creusa, to achieve this…
https://art.thewalters.org/detail/24095/intaglio-of-aeneas-with-anchises-and-ascanius/

Toshi Reagon, on the Octavia’s Parables podcast (Ep. 10, Aug. 24th 2020; 55:10):

“Every ten years of your age, there should be somebody ten years younger than you…The annoying one that’s always asking you questions and correcting you from something you said before which you can’t remember and who’s bringing in the latest technology that you need to move on to. That person needs to have real agency in your life. So now I have somebody in their twenties, somebody in their thirties, somebody in their forties, ’cause that’s how I’m rolling. And you do start to see that you don’t do a disappearing. An evolution happens around, over, and beyond you.”

A note on the next year

untitled — h č-b

As the new academic year approaches, I intend here to set some expectations for myself and others who work with me, or might wish to work with me. For the next year, thanks to a BUCH Junior Fellowship, I am on a research leave, which means I am not teaching and I am taking a step back from a number of things.

To be honest, being able to take a research leave like this would have been an immense privilege even under regular circumstances. But in the face of the coronavirus crisis, and how it is being handled across the country, it is a miracle. I know how lucky I am, and I don’t take any of this lightly.

Inspired, in part, by Adrienne Maree Brown’s recent discussion of what it means to take a sabbatical (part 1 | part 2), I am taking a conscious step back from some of the spaces which I regularly inhabit, including digital ones. In some cases, this will mean less visibility, in others more. After I finished a big project this summer, I unexpectedly found myself naturally disconnecting from twitter, which has always been a place of community and collaboration for me. At the same time, instagram has interestingly become a renewed site of creativity and communication. And as I reconsider my own relationship to writing in the wake of finishing the project to which many years of my life were devoted, I find myself wanting to write here on the blog more and more. In essence, I expect there to be a kind of hybridity to the presences and absences of my leave taking.

Living in the context of the pandemic has been a revelatory experience for me in many respects. As I wrote here a few days ago, the conditions created by the coronavirus have exposed for me the ways of thinking, doing, and being that do not serve me or the communities which I am a part of. It is with the mindful spirit of recalibration and renewal that I go into this next year. Yet while I may be less present, and at times less available, than I am accustomed to be, there are still a number of ongoing projects which I am involved with and will continue to give my care and attention to. At the same time, I will likely be less responsive to new requests, and I am thankful for your patience when that inevitably ends up being the case.

Note on José Esteban Muñoz’ “Ephemera as Evidence” // Letting go of things that do not serve us

Rigor mortis

José Esteban Muñoz (1996) “Ephemera as Evidence: Introductory Notes to Queer Acts.Women and Performance. Vol. 8, Iss. 2. pp7-8. 

This week I was reading the above cited article by José Esteban Muñoz, when I was struck by the passage which I have excerpted and marked.

At the beginning of the coronavirus, I had this feeling that we were all in a stage play, wearing our costumes, holding our props, and speaking our lines from a well known script. All of a sudden that script, those words, vanished. And we were left holding ourselves in absurd postures, wearing costumes that did not fit us. At that initial moment of crisis, back in March, it felt strange, and often wrong, to be going through the motions. The starkness of crisis revealed the contours of intellectual structures and practices that we have irresistibly carried with us, but not consciously wished to do so. Cultures, traditions, structures of thought persist through repetitions, internalizations, citations; these are living and embodied practices. When the coronavirus revealed what it was we were actually doing — when the national uprisings in the fight for Black Lives underlined what we have been doing, what we are still doing — these were and are moments to reframe how we relate to ourselves and to each other. To return, then, to Muñoz’ words:

“This is true despite the fact that, on the level of publishing and not much else, alterity is currently in vogue… (I can not begin to count the times I have been advised—or I have advised—friends, colleagues, and students to make their projects look ‘straighter’: conservative in thematics and rigorous in methodology. Rarely do I suggest that someone ‘queer up’ their application for a fellowship or play up the heuristic or performative dimensions of a book proposal. Academically [p8] and institutionally the communities of scholars that I live in are often in the position of ideologically and theoretically dressing down.)”

In my field as much as any other, we are rooted in scholarly traditions and practices and proceed with these prior works as guides to our own thought, carrying these weights with us to load down and substantiate our own work. Yet, moments of rupture such as the ones we are currently experiencing reveal that there are other modes and practices which we desperately need. “Alterity” as a process seeks — not just “otherness”, and not just the “counter-cultural” — but, specifically, putting our eyes and our attention where it has not gone before. This means broadening our horizons, including texts and artefacts we haven’t considered before, citing the work of scholars outside of the gravitational pull of the citational traditions we currently have. But it also means examining our own interior commitments to structures which ultimately do not serve us.

Muñoz refers here to the process in which scholars and students learn to mute themselves, to form themselves into commodities based on the marketplace of scholarly desire which rewards presentations of comfortable sameness. Yet the image we’re supposed to be reflecting and performing is obsolete, artificial; the standards and shapes we replicate in our bodies and our thoughts are dependent upon eras in which we ourselves did not live, and which had values we no longer share. Muñoz wrote these words in 1996, but these processes are still happening around us and within us. Sara Ahmed wrote in Living a Feminist Life (2017: 4) about how feminist work must operate at the most interior level:

I began to realize what I already knew: that patriarchal reasoning goes all the way down, to the letter, to the bone. I had to find ways not to reproduce its grammar in what I said, in what I wrote; in what I did, in who I was.

We are living in rupture. Many things are shifting, opening, falling away. What stays and what goes? What inherited beliefs about scholarly and pedagogical practice — ideas and behaviours which never quite sat right with us in the first place — are we going to get rid of? What new words and new thoughts are we going to use?