latest from the magazine
latest journal issue
Abdullah Ibrahim, African Marketplace.
Adrian Piper, “Funk Lessons.”
Angel Bat Dawid, “Black Family.”
Ashon Crawley, Black Blackpentecostal Breath.
Calypso Rose, “Calypso Queen.”
Charles Lloyd, Tagore on the Delta.
DJ Shadow, “Blood on the Motorway.”
Donna Summer, “I Feel Love.”
Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain.
Francesca Ekwuyasi, Butter Honey Pig Bread
Fred Moten and Stefano Harney, “Debt and Study.”
Janet Jackson, “Escapade.”
Kei Miller, The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion,
Little Simz, “Picture Perfect.”
M. NourbeSe Philip, Caribana: African Roots and Continuities.
Mariame Kaba, We Do This ‘Til We Free Us.
rRoxymore, “Forward Flamingo.”
Suniti Namjoshi, Conversations with Cow
Sweet Honey in the Rock, “Ella’s Song.”
TY, “The Nonsense.”
Subramaniam: In her brilliant book Dear Science, a reluctant and ambivalent love letter to Science (conceptualized in its most comprehensive incarnation of western enlightenment thinking), McKittrick (2021) introduces the evocative term livingness. Deceptively simple, this shift from life and living to livingness was for me profound. It has stayed with me. Livingness forces us to contend not only with what life is, how life lives, but its -ness or the state or quality of living. This -ness forces us to move outside of disciplinary silos, of objects and subjects, natures and cultures, secular and sacred, to ask why and how certain states or qualities of living emerge and endure. McKittrick is thinking particularly about black livingness in the book. As she powerfully reminds us, there is no outside; we are in and of nature. More profoundly for me, McKittrick challenges us to recognize blackness not as a singular site of abjection, oppression and victimhood, but also one of joy, play, and liberation, a generative and affirmative project of black livingness.
This call for moving feminist STS into a generative mode of livingness has opened new doors to my imagination. In my new work on decolonizing botany, McKittrick’s work pushes me to move beyond the history of botany to ask the myriad ways in which peoples and cultures across the globe build lives and living with plants, i.e., a botanical livingness.
Moving beyond plants as life, and plants as living beings, livingness opens up new registers. Suddenly, there are so many new stories to tell! Stories that eschew the tired old language of empire and its biocentric view of life bounded by the linear tales of Judeo-Christian salvation and the secular tales of scientific progress—each with scripted pasts and futures. Instead, botanical livingness allows me to forgo apocalyptic tales of planetary doom, to open up vibrant worlds of multi-species and multi-cultural entanglements, planetary livingness of splendor and infinite possibilities. In opening up my mind beyond a discipline-centric imagination, at McKittrick’s urging I turned to art, literature, and music in particular. I turned to one of my favorite authors, Suniti Namjoshi, especially her The Conversations with Cow (1985), a zany, joyous, satirical fable. Here, there is no beginning or end, the tale is non-linear and fragmentary—but there are lesbian cows, complex women, and even a Martian! You quickly give up expectations of normative storytelling, and go along for the ride, suspending judgement, living for the moment, a delightful kind of livingness. To experience the more majestic aspects of livingness, I turned to jazz, especially Abdullah Ibrahim’s African Marketplace (1980), that draws folktales into music. It is spirited, alive, multiple musical instruments talking to each other in different registers, in different tongue, painting a melodious vibrant, energetic scene of vital livingness. From this scene I moved to the contemplative imagination of Charles Lloyd’s melodious Tagore on the Delta (2017), that reminds me that the affirmative project of black livingness is an interdisciplinary, multi-media, multicultural transnational project. In coming together, we may once again resurrect and reinvent the many ways we can come together in, with, and of planetary livingness.
Asante: We: In honor of those who have endured with me as we attempt to navigate our way through a rough sea without a map.
We are a loose collective of intergenerational artists, writers, curators, psychotherapists, academics, activists, community organizers, healers, Black feminists, abolitionists, revolutionary mothers, queer rabble rousers, Debbie downers, bringers of pure unadulterated Black joy, keepers of our stories, co-conspirators always in a praxis of Black liberation. We are connected in kinship and our deep commitment to liberation. We read together, share our challenges, our despair, photographs of sunrises, sunsets, spring blossoms and the sea. If we are entirely honest with ourselves, we are exhausted! We would like to afford ourselves and others some space and time to gather our thoughts and to create space to be together and imagine. We want to think about how we endure. How do we make roadmaps for the future from this despair? What can we seed from this moment of pause/isolation if Black folx could really use all this to engage in both cultivating interiority and connection, without the pressures of disproportionality and racial capital? How can we draw from the experiences of our ancestors to furnish our present and to make way for those that are yet to come? How do we break this seemingly never-ending cycle, which is so embedded in the ideology of coloniality, in Britishness, and bring to life what is needed for healthy and whole, connected Black futures? From the opening acknowledgements “He Liked to Say That This Love Was the Result of a Clinical Error” and throughout the book, friendship, love and connection are presented as an important methodology in developing black epistemologies.
“We” have added Dear Science and Other Stories to our core reading lists. It will help to guide us as we navigate a post-Brexit Britain that is pedaling backwards towards a colonial nostalgia that negates our experiences and denies our connective presence here.
(The conversation is forever and it is forever rewound very fast and replayed… )
“The friendship itself, a form of life that cannot be totally capitalized on and is therefore slightly in excess of work as we know it. . . . Working in friendship could be a way to work outside of productivist demands” (Gordon and Condorelli, 2018: 92-93; quoted in McKittrick, 2021: 73).
Friendship is hard freedom. Maybe friendships effectuate consciousness and liberation and possibility.
Zoe Samudzi: Katherine describes how Frantz Fanon via Sylvia Wynter explicates black being as both a psychic and physiological phenomenon. Black people “experience the fictions of race as a lived reality,” and, conversely, the fictions of race have been transmuted into non-fictional objective medico-scientific empirics and inscribed onto black[ened] bodies (McKittrick, 2021: 60).
More than anything else, mention of [re]iterative medical inscriptions and fictions reminds of race corrections used in clinical medicine. These are the manual and algorithmic changes made that ultimately make black people seem more inherently prone to ailment, less adherent to norms and recommendations for health, higher risk and more difficult to treat, more deviant. So-called “race-norming” in the National Football League has been used to deny black players compensatory payments for the neurodegenerative damage sustained as physical laborer-athletes. Cognitive scores “correcting” for race ultimately disqualified black players from payouts because their scores were calculated using a lower cognitive baseline and so they had to suffer even more trauma in order to meet the threshold. A devastating metaphor there.
Katherine quotes Sylvia Wynter on Fanon saying that “what the brain does is itself culturally determined through the meditation of the socialized sense of self” (Wynter, 2001: 37). And it’s functionally impossible not to couple this scientific-ontological determination of the less damageable, less capable black brain with the constant dismissal and reinterpretations and redirections of black people’s everyday perceptions and experiences of anti-black racism(s)—the athletic cartel of white billionaire owners and multi-millionaire coaches constantly denied and ignored concussion evidence of the players in the majority-black sport. This is the Wynterian “highlighting [of] the sparking synapses, the crumbling corporeal schema, the nausea, the biochemical stratum, that permeate Fanon’s analysis” that inextricably links feeling and knowing and living and embodying racism (McKittrick, 2021: 60). It is the creation and expansion of a devastating grammar for understanding the constitution of the human and blackness’ preclusion from the category, defined rigidly (and enforced by) the overrepresented Vitruvian Man.
Robin James: “Indeed, part of my claim here is that listening to and grooving to black music provides the conditions to intellectually engage and love black ethically. Music waveforms allow us to glean that reinventing black life anew is bound up in cognitive schemas that envision, and feel, black sound outside normative structures of desire. This is to say that in order to be newly human, one does not only rebelliously site and make black culture in a world that despises blackness, one also engages cultural inventions and sounds and ideas and texts, deeply and enthusiastically, in order to affirm humanity: one grooves out of the logics of racism and into black life” (McKittrick, 2021: 164).
“Funk Lessons” is a 15-minute-long work of video art Adrian Piper released in 1983. Documenting one of many such events she convened in the early 80s, the video depicts Piper teaching a gymnasium full of mostly white people how to dance to then-contemporary African-American popular music. As Piper explains on her website, “Both performance and tape address the ambiguous status of African-American working class music and dance as serious contributors to American art and culture. In the performance I teach my audience how to listen to this music and how to dance to it” As I read the above passage in Dear Science, “Funk Lessons” immediately popped into my head. Here, McKittrick is talking about how thinking, the rewiring of cognitive schemas, happens in sonically and choreosonically bringing yourself into sympathetic resonance with its groove (see Crawley, 2017). The point isn’t to achieve mastery, but to build a relationship with the work and the people in the scene. You have to listen, you have to move, and you have to be practicing forms of sociality that reinvent the terms of personhood beyond their white supremacist capitalist patriarchal forms. That’s the kind of theorizing at the heart of Dear Science (and McKittrick’s work more generally). It’s also the kind of theorizing Piper is teaching and practicing in “Funk Lessons.”
It’s interesting that this sort of theoretical practice dominated Piper’s art career in the early 1980s, because in 1981 Piper finished her doctoral work in philosophy at Harvard, where John Rawls was her supervisor. She would go on to become the first Black woman to be tenured in a philosophy department in the US, but she would eventually leave that position and focus on her art practice. Moving from her philosophy dissertation to “Funk Lessons,” Piper recalibrates her theoretical practice in a move analogous to the one McKittrick (2021: 3) identifies in the introduction as a “shift from studying science to studying ways of knowing.” And to follow this shift, we have to practice the funk lessons McKittrick shares in this book, the most obvious of which is the long list of songs in “The Kick Drum Is The Fault.” As I read that list, I come to Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” (1977). As I hear the pulsing synths and Summer’s breathy soprano voice in my head, I wonder how it has rewired my brain and millions of others.
Moriah: “Citing is not easy. Referencing is hard” (McKittrick, 2021: 17).
My house is quiet as I prepare for another pandemic year. It has been a wet summer and I listen to the rain through open windows. I listen to the faint and precious woofs my dog makes as she dreams. I hear the buzz of cicadas and mechanical growth floating through the window near my desk. In this quiet I have been thinking about citing and referencing and music. About the way the notes in Dear Science reveal discrete moments in time and webs of relation. About genealogies of family, friends, and colleagues.
The stories that Katherine tells in Dear Science educate, intrigue and delight. They tell us about staying human in the world. You probably know by now that the notes, the digressions, are the method, or as Katherine McKittrick (2021: 22) puts it, “citation points to method and how we come to write what we know.” For me they are by turns some of the most dazzling and daunting parts of Katherine’s work. Her notes contain multitudes and work against the grain. They are clear-eyed and modest, “I do not know everywhere” (McKittrick, 2021: 15) even as they demonstrate a seemingly effortless capaciousness. I have repeatedly returned to the idea that citing and referencing are difficult, particularly footnote 17 on page 19 in “Footnotes (Books and Papers Scattered About the Floor)”. This note opens the door to repeated readings of McKittrick, Wynter, Glissant, Gilroy, and others for many years to come. I know that I will be listening and relistening, seeing and unseeing as I reconsider the references and connections Katherine makes in Dear Science, as the grooves she etches grow deeper. And then there is the fact she asks us to reconsider the act of connecting altogether while saying it is ok to loosen the hold. This is play and practice.
The idea that referencing signal social engagement draws me to the role of kinship in Black methodology and the songs and stories I was first exposed to. I am thinking about Calypso Rose, or to be precise, the absence of Calypso Rose from certain discourses, and the fact that I entered a world defined by Sparrow, but which makes way for the Calypso Queen. I mean it as a way of saying that I see what Katherine means when she observes that the walls of memory, discipline, and the academy are porous in practice. These kinds of stories can and should be listened to with curiosity and wonder. We are meant to be assured that the reference, the citation, and the connection is there if you know how to listen for it.
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Banu Subramaniam is Professor of Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and author of Holy Science: The Biopolitics of Hindu Nationalism, and Ghost Stories for Darwin: The Science of Variation and the Politics of Diversity.
Kristin Moriah is Assistant Professor of African American Literature and Culture at Queen's University. Her forthcoming monograph, Dark Stars of the Evening, examines transnational Black performance in Europe at the turn of the twentieth century.
Robin James is Associate Professor of Philosophy at UNC Charlotte. She is author of The Sonic Episteme: acoustic resonance, neoliberalism, and biopolitics, and Resilience & Melancholy: pop music, neoliberalism, and feminism.
Barby Asante is an artist, curator and researcher in CREAM University of Westminster, London. Her performance and collaborative works explore memory through collating, excavating, and mapping narratives, through collective writing, re-enactment and creating spaces for transformation, ritual, and healing.
Zoé Samudzi is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow with the ACTIONS Program at the University of California, San Francisco. She is also a Research Associate with the Center for the Study of Race, Gender and Class at the University of Johannesburg.