Declarations of Independence

Black and Blur (consent not to be a single being) BY Fred Moten. Duke University Press Books. Paperback, 360 pages. $27

Lately I’ve been preoccupied with a strange thought, what one might call a blip of cultural memory: The only human-made object that has reached interstellar space—the Voyager 1 probe, launched by nasa in 1977—is a record player. Though it carries mathematical formulas and graphs and drawings of human figures Voyager’sgold-plated 16 2⁄3 rpm record is the main event: It includes a selection from Glenn Gould’s The Well-Tempered Clavier, Stravinsky conducting The Rite of Spring, Louis Armstrong’s “Melancholy Blues,”songs played by traditional musicians of Benin and Australia, shakuhachi flute from Japan, and, second-to-last, Blind Willie Johnson’s recording of “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground.”

“Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground” is a wordless song, where Johnson hums and vocalizes, with a rich vibrato, mostly following the notes of a slide guitar. It’s the sound of the human voice before it is reduced or captured as language, or, to think of it another way, the sound of the voice after language has exhausted itself. This is improvised music; there’s no way to capture it fully in notation. It comes to us through the crackling and wavering of a needle on wax in Dallas in 1927: the sound of Johnson’s own life, under the terrorist Jim Crow regime, in such extreme poverty he once slept among the collapsed timbers of his house after it had burned down. On the flip side, engraved on the Golden Record—the most permanent recording ever made, which may exist longer than our planet exists—“Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground” will travel farther than any other human sound, stamped on a metal box that is also inscribed “the human” and “America” and “Earth.” Timothy Ferris, an astronomer who selected the music with Carl Sagan, said, “Johnson’s song concerns a situation he faced many times, nightfall with no place to sleep,” which is only approximately true. What he should have said was that anyone within listening distance of it won’t be able to sleep. “Dark Was the Night” deprives Voyager of the qualities you would expect from an intergalactic probe—power, unity, purpose, prestige—and substitutes a kind of transcendental, conceptual homelessness.

Late in the last volume of his trilogy consent not to be a single being—three books of essays, written over fifteen years—Fred Moten describes a debate between the minimalist painter Ad Reinhardt and the pianist Cecil Taylor over the meaning of the word “black.” Reinhardt insists that in his paintings, “black” is the absence of reference or significance; it can’t be limited to a single context, or event, or meaning, and thus achieves “aesthetic perfection.” Taylor retorts: “In pursuit of that perfection, once it is attained, what then? . . . Of course Reinhardt visualizes blackness as some kind of technical problem. I visualize it as the quality that shapes my life.” Moten’s work—restless, accumulative, and protean as it is—always circles around this point: What happens when blackness happens, when it becomes the shape, the “irruption,” the event? For him this is a question so basic it has to change the nature of our thinking. “The middle passage,” he writes, “opens onto an alternative warp, enacting its own singular rupture of the space-time continuum, of a transcendental aesthetic that lays down the terms and conditions of possibility for the modern subject of knowledge and power.” In other words: a critique of not just specific claims for transcendence but of the idea of transcendence itself. This applies not just to slightly weird examples—a black (“but not that kind of black”) cube on a white canvas—but to all the examples, all the institutions, of Western thought, which depend on the notion of a transcendental unity or purpose. The nation-state. The university. The museum. The work of art. The color line (in the sense that W. E. B. Du Bois defined it: “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line”). The self.

The project of consent not to be a single being goes something like this: Take on all these institutions, but not in the order in which they usually present themselves; invent a new idea of order that is improvisational and fluid, that defies and even replaces the practice of systematic argument. Black and Blur is most explicitly focused on music, poetry, and visual art, Stolen Life on immediate questions of social and political praxis, and The Universal Machine on sustained philosophical readings of Levinas, Arendt, and Fanon; but consent is very much an interrelated project, where phrases and references reverberate across all nine-hundred-plus pages.Moten’s method of simultaneous, nonlinear composition can be difficult to follow, but no more so than Wittgenstein, Heidegger, or Adorno, let alone his immediate influences: Derrida, Hortense Spillers, Judith Butler, Nathaniel Mackey, Rakim. Not-knowing, reading without getting every word, hearing without hearing every note: If you’re not ready for that, Moten might say, try reading Finnegans Wake, or listening to A Love Supreme. Moten locates his writing practice in what he calls the tradition of “resistance to power, or counterstatement to statement.” But even more than that, he writes, “consider how improvisational para-statement—the extra-grammatical run-on, that informal incompletion where the sentence lives against its own execution—continually and ubiquitously establishes itself otherwise, elsewhere and at another time, neither here nor there nor here and now, as a kind of an original (declaration of) independence.” This is what Moten calls the “blur,” his insistence on seeing one subject as not simply one subject: a “materiality of shade, of colored number, in number’s inexactitude, the way it’s always off the beat.” Which is why he wants to teach us how to bring Rilke and Coltrane to bear on Levinas’s concept of objecthood and the Other, or use Curtis Mayfield’s 1971 performance at The Bitter End as an entry point to Hannah Arendt’s resentment of black radicalism.

Voyager Golden Record case in production, July 21, 1977. NASA/JPL-Caltech.

The thinker who appears most often in consent not to be a single being—preceding and incorporating any conversation about aesthetics—is Kant, who used transcendence as a hierarchy, defining beauty, freedom, and truth against the chaos of the unregulated imagination, which he explicitly linked to blackness. Many scholars have read Kant’s paranoia about blackness as the origin point of Western racism, which discredits the entire project of the Enlightenment; but it’s much more interesting, and necessary, in Moten’s view, to imagine Kant as a troubled figure whose concept of freedom was so powerful that he himself was afraid of it: Black Kant. “Kant’s blackness is given in his fantastical generation of the concept of blackness,” Moten writes. “Kant knows that the only way to regulate (fantastical) generation is to deploy it as inoculation, so that the philosophical body is resurrected . . . by means of . . . a more than critical power that critical philosophy will have soon learned to neglect.” The correct response, he says, is not to abandon the concept of the universal, or the cosmopolitan, but to ask, What would it mean to embrace a universal that is actually universal, that incorporates the unregulated, the fantastic, the rejected object, body, and thought?

This is a thought that has no end in sight; or, to put it another way, it’s one of those insights that feels inexhaustible in a world that can’t stop reproducing itself in binary, dualist, forms. In Black and Blur it comes alive in unlikely juxtapositions: “Sonata Quasi Una Fantasia,” on Glenn Gould’s disruptions of the barrier between performance and recording, morphs into a discussion of Freud’s concept of phantasie, and “Entanglement and Virtuosity” provides a searching critique of Kamasi Washington, the saxophonist who rocketed to fame after his collaborations with Snoop Dogg and Kendrick Lamar. “Entanglement” doubles as a meditation on how the insistence on singular fame—the one and only virtuoso, the transcendent leader, who is almost always male—has damaged black cultural life. “The insistence on being called the founders of a movement, a claim that undermines the supposed movement’s claim on the very term movement,” Moten writes, “is an insistence upon personality (already coded, in fact, in the assertion of the mattering of that most viciously carceral of idealizations, the individual life) that doubles down on the patriarchy it is supposed to combat.” This line kept returning to me as I followed the recent storm of controversy around Cornel West’s transparently doubled-down attack on Ta-Nehisi Coates, with its overtones of generational fury and incomprehension, and I wonder if a similar sentiment prompted Coates to exit the scene, by closing his Twitter account, rather than play an ersatz game of Clash of the Titans. (Coates, after all, writes actual comic books, which may help him tell the difference.)

Stolen Life, which Moten calls a book of “social essays,” asks, and answers, the hardest questions. The most categorical statement he makes in all of consent not to be a single being comes in the middle of “Here, There, and Everywhere,” an essay defending the BDS movement after the leaders of the Modern Language Association refused to allow debate on supporting it. “States are effects of racism and colonialism. They have no right to exist and Israel is no exception,” he says.

States have no rights, and ought not have rights, but if they did surely those rights would be contingent on the state’s capacity to do what liberal political theorists tell us states are supposed to do, namely protect the rights not only of all their citizens but of all the citizens of the world. The assertion of this simple but irreducible cosmopolitan imperative is supposed to justify the state’s existence; but states have never been either capable or desirous of its execution.

As a critic of all dualist systems and all forms and means of sovereignty, Moten does not accept any normative, nonparadoxical form of politics: no citizenship, no voting, no concept of the public sphere, no grassroots activism, and no nations, black or otherwise. “The first right must be the right to refuse, and not to have, rights,” he says in another essay, drawing on a formulation from Gayatri Spivak, “even if it is exercised as the refusal of what has been refused.” This demands a refusal to administer the concept of blackness, to assign it an essence, a point of origin, or a quality of personhood. Blackness, he writes, is “neither bound by nor originated in the white/nonwhite boundary . . . blackness is a general force of fugitivity that . . . the color line exacerbates and focuses without originating.” Blackness in this sense is not the same as black people; nor is it the same as anti-blackness, the homicidal regime that targets and negates black people; it’s the inherently social incongruity that troubles all dualistic systems, all attempts at lawmaking. “Blackness,” he says, “places a kind of pressure on identity that identity cannot stand.”

This is the point where Moten wants us to stay, as readers, at least for a while: a state of fundamental self-doubt about what it means to utter a simple sentence, like “I care about you”:

It’s not enough to question one’s comfort or discomfort with inequality, one’s love or hatred of domination; instead, one must question one’s comfort or discomfort with life itself when life is held to be the occupied territory of necessarily interdicted personality, of the citizen/subject mired in colonial abstraction and political enclosure. Making visible the reciprocal nonexistence of the white man and the black man, dwelling in and on the im/possibility of proper self-possession, shies away . . . from the general ecology and economy of things.

“Reciprocal nonexistence” is one of several phrases Moten uses that has an obvious analogue in Buddhist philosophy (in this case it’s pratı¯tyasamutpa¯da, “dependent co-origination,” which describes the way empty phenomena always exist interdependently). Although Moten engages with Buddhist concepts of emptiness briefly at the end of The Universal Machine, and cites African postcolonial thinkers in several places, there’s so much more that could be said. To me the question that hovers over Moten’s whole project, and may be unanswerable within it, is why he places the resistance to European thought at the center of his work without seeking alternatives to it. (The question of whether a philosophical system can exist entirely as non-affirming negations, in particular, has preoccupied Indian and Tibetan Buddhists in the Madhyamaka tradition for more than a thousand years.) Moten never addresses the issue directly in consent not to be a single being, and it may be that this comparative work is yet to be done; but I also wonder if he would argue that blackness is so bound to, and constitutive of, the West and Western modernity that resistance from within is the only possible solution: The only way out is through. Which is precisely why he wants to demand of Levinas, Kant, Arendt, and Adorno, among others, that they live up to and actually accomplish their own universalizing commitments despite themselves.

In this way, consent not to be a single being is, for me, an engagement in experimental reading, where my own doubts about the possibility of the project only strengthen my sense of wanting to get back into it, to do the work. Without claiming that Moten entirely focuses on method—that would be an easy way of avoiding the radicalism of his conclusions—I want to say that the part of this immense work that moved me the most was his essay on teaching, “Anassignment Letters”:

That which is called freedom is not, nor could it ever correspond to, the completion or the achievement of an assignment. Freedom is a practice—a fugitive act—of its own (un)making, a structure that is the very apotheosis of the terribly redoubled double edge (freedom’s articulation in bondage; its dearticulation and rearticulation in flight).

This whole idea of learning and study, Moten says, has to be not only disorganized but reorganized; “what I’m talking about,” he writes, “is a devotional, sacramental, anamonastic kind of intellectual practice. . . . It requires us to consider our relation . . . to the university’s origin in contemplative life. . . . We have to support one another in the care of intellectual practice/s. This is a social imperative.” It’s this spirit of the collective effort of study and exchange and resonance, the effort to keep the channels open and keep listening, that has made Moten (or, maybe, “Moten/s”) such a celebrated thinker. At the end of sentences like these, you want to say something like Amen.

Jess Row’s most recent book is the novel Your Face in Mine (Riverhead, 2014). White Flights, his first collection of essays, will be published by Graywolf Press in 2019.