On “Blackness and Nothingness”

We play puppets, we eat cheerios. As Frankie naps, I read Fred Moten’s “Blackness and Nothingness (Mysticism in the Flesh),” a “taking up” of Afropessimism through attention to the ideas of Frank B. Wilderson III and Jared Sexton. “I have thought long and hard, in the wake of their work,” writes Moten, “in a kind of echo of Bob Marley’s question, about whether blackness could be loved” (738). I think of my cousin, locked away all these years while the rest of us go free. Let us continue our correspondence. Unlike Fanon, from whom nonetheless all of these thinkers take their inspiration, Moten prefers “damnation” to “wretchedness,” as he prefers “life and optimism over death and pessimism” (738). Many of my communications have led to this, all the lotuses I’ve been eating, all the books I’ve been reading: “blackness is prior to ontology…it is ontology’s anti- and ante-foundation, ontology’s underground, the irreparable disturbance of ontology’s time and space” (739). Blackness means choosing to stay social. Or choosing, as Frank B. Wilderson said, “To stay in the hold of the ship.” Yet it somehow also means “avoidance of subjectivity” (743). So it is: let us “trace the visionary company and join it” (743).

The Structure of the Device

It’s an odd thing, this device, is it not? With its levers, it’s like a clock or a timepiece. Spun or turned, the levers grant the Traveler safe passage through forthcoming years as counted by Western calendars. The future is reified, captured in a count by an imaginal technology that converts time into a measurable dimension.

Wells’s Traveler assumes in the very structure of his time machine an imperial temporality: the Western linear temporal orientation, with its obedience to “the Master’s Clock.”

But for more recent Travelers, especially people of color, travel is undertaken not so much in obedience to the clock as in exodus from its dictates. Travelers consult stars and return to sidereal time. Or they create music. They keep time with drums rather than clocks. As Moor Mother notes, “Music created by Black people has been used throughout time and across space as an agent of time and memory” (Black Quantum Futurism: Theory & Practice, p. 9). She and the other members of the Black Quantum Futurism Collective take this longstanding practice a step further, their self-professed goal being “to collapse space-time into a desired future.” Tracks of theirs are self-creating, self-causing sound-events from the future made to happen in the minds and bodies of those who listen.

Sunday June 20, 2021

Indigenous ways of knowing; Black Radical thought; Surrealism; Afrofuturism; Zen Buddhism. All have been guides: blueprints for counter-education for those who wish to be healed of imperial imposition. All provide maps of states other than the dominant capitalist-realist one. Hermann Hesse describes one such line of flight in his short novel The Journey to the East, a book first published in German in 1932, unavailable in English until 1956. Timothy Leary’s League for Spiritual Discovery takes after the League in Hesse’s novel. It, too, is but a part of a “procession of believers and disciples” moving “always and incessantly…towards the East, towards the Home of Light” (Hesse 12-13). Two of Leary’s psychedelic utopias, in other words, take their names from books by Hesse: both the League for Spiritual Discovery and its immediate precursor, the Castalia Foundation.

Wednesday June 9, 2021

Robin D.G. Kelley carries forward a remarkable defense of fantasy in his book Freedom Dreams — one I might consider as I design a course on fantastic literature for the year ahead. Kelley quotes from Paul Garon’s book Blues and the Poetic Spirit. “Fantasy alone,” writes Garon, “enables us to envision the real possibilities of human existence, no longer tied securely to the historical effluvia passed off as everyday life; fantasy remains our most pre-emptive critical faculty, for it alone tells us what can be” (as quoted in Kelley 163-164). Garon sees the blues as revolutionary in nature due to “its fidelity to fantasy and desire” (164). Fantasy is one’s remembering of the past on behalf of the future through a kind of dreamwork, in accordance with a desire that draws reality toward the “as if” and the “can be.” Others have called this desire Eros and the Spirit of Hope. In his retelling of the story of surrealism in light of anticolonialism, Kelley reveals a side of Jules Monnerot that was unknown to me. I’d known him before as a member of Acéphale, a secret society formed by Georges Bataille in the 1930s. After WWII Monnerot drifted to the right and denounced Marxism as a political theology akin to Gnosticism. What I learn from Kelley, however, is Monnerot’s prior involvement with surrealism. Martinican by birth, Monnerot arrived to France in the early 1930s. By 1933, he’d published a critique of the “civilized mentality” in the Surrealist periodical Le Surréalisme au service de la révolution. Monnerot was one of several black intellectuals attracted to surrealism. Kelley argues that these intellectuals “found in surrealism confirmation of what they already know — for them it is more an act of recognition than a revolutionary discovery. […]. Aime Césaire insisted that surrealism brought him back to African culture. Ted Joans wrote Breton that he ‘chose’ surrealism because he recognized its fundamental ideas and camaraderie in jazz. Wilfredo Lam said he was drawn to surrealism because he already knew the power of the unconscious, having grown up in the Africanized spirit world of Santeria” (184-185). For the abovementioned figures, and for others like Watts poet-activist Jayne Cortez, “Surrealism was less a revelation than a recognition of what already existed in the black tradition” (187).

Tuesday June 8, 2021

The pool’s not been what I’d hoped. This is one of the ways that Mercury Retrograde has manifested locally of late, prompting in me a sense of frustration and postponement, despite my knowing that we’ve performed our planting ritual, seeds and seedlings are in the ground, things are growing. Similar processes are afoot intellectually as I continue my wanderings. In my readings, I’ve been moving crabwise among many books at once. Robin D.G. Kelley keeps it surreal with his book Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination. Thelonious Monk appears near the book’s finale. Kelley went on to write a book on Monk. Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original. Thumbing through the latter book’s index, I land upon “Monk, Thelonious: drugs taken by,” hoping to encounter word of Monk’s relationship to psychedelics, as he’s known to have done mushrooms with Allen Ginsberg and Timothy Leary. Monk came to the psychedelic sacrament a seasoned pro. Reports suggest he was unimpressed. Monk had been arrested years prior for marijuana possession. Police rolled up on him after a Sunday night gig in June 1948. He liked to smoke reefer when he played, and other players in his groups relied on drugs and alcohol to keep up. The meeting with Leary occurred in January 1961. Three years later, Monk appeared on the cover of the February 28, 1964 edition of Time magazine. The cover story’s author Barry Farrell wrote, “Every day is a brand-new pharmaceutical event for Monk: alcohol, Dexedrine, sleeping potions, whatever is at hand, charge through his bloodstream in baffling combinations.”

Thursday August 30, 2018

In a first attempt to name what I find exciting and distinctive in the work of Will Alexander, I land on describing the latter’s “A Cannibal Explains Himself to Himself” as a venture into pan-Africanist poetic cosmology. How do I arrange into the structure of my course on “Hippie Modernism,” I wonder, a sampling of that constellation of black radical art and politics leading from Sun Ra and Alice Coltrane to Will Alexander? Surely this has something to do with the Nguzo Saba and Ron Karenga’s substitution of “Trippin” in place of “jazz.” (“Trippin,” he writes, “is our word for what white boys and others call jazz. In line with our obsession with self-determination which demands new definitions and nomenclature, we reject the word jazz, for jazz is taken from the white word, jazzy, i.e., sexy, because that is what he thought our music was. We call it Trippin because that is what we do when we play it or listen to it.”) Trinidad’s steelbands, exploding forth from speakers one hundred panmen strong, awaken in me a desire to read Michael Denning’s Noise Uprising: The Audiopolitics of a World Musical Revolution. Listening to calypso recordings contributes to what Denning would call a project of “cultural decolonization” — a transmission from beyond the English-speaking auto-encyclopedic veil. The National Geographic text that supplements the recording teaches that Africans recorded their history in the arts, including song, dance, and culture, not in writing. Social conditions and injustices find expression in calypso music’s informative and militant song form. From calypso, I leap to the East Village of John Coltrane’s “Africa,” and then call it a day.