By Kate Bedecarre, Christine Capetola and Timothy Piper
As we begin to consider Fred Moten’s In the Break and Saidiya Hartman’s Scenes of Subjection as a class, we determined it would be useful this week to use our post as a space in which to offer helpful theoretical contextualization and engagements, as well as to provide a directory of useful links that permit a more well-rounded engagement with the texts.
Theoretical Context & Engagement
First, we find it helpful to locate these texts within a larger discussion taking place around the theoretical question of Black subjectivity that emerges from Orlando Patterson’s Slavery and Social Death (1982). Patterson characterizes slavery by its production of social death. Social death, a process singular in its relationship to slavery, is produced through the processes of: violence, natal alienation, dishonor. By violence, Patterson argues that the slave is subject to continual gratuitous violence in order to reinforce the slave’s powerlessness in relation to the master’s power. By natal alienation Patterson refers to the slave’s enduring loss of homeland, heritage, family (past or future) or any other social ties. And by dishonor Patterson argues that the slave experiences a condition of permanent dishonor (in relation to the honor of their master).
Just as excessive violence, dispossession and dishonor are the defining aspects of slavery, a growing number of scholars argue that these very characteristics of social death are at work in the present. Such scholarship theorizes the continued black experience of unfreedom as the afterlife of slavery. It refuses to deploy traditional notions of subjectivity to blackness or to resolve the tension between the Black agency and totalizing status of Black social death. Others, however object to the way that the notion of an ahistorical social death disallows for Black agency. More concerned with celebrating or honoring Black survival, such thinkers tend to highlight Black agency in the politics of daily life and privilege metaphysical resistance. These scholars are attempting the difficult task of writing against blackness as commodity, fungibility and social death. Their definition of blackness lies in the difficulty and centrality of the affective: the disappointments, desires, fantasies, memories, and possibilities that emerge out of trans-atlantic slavery, particularly in its relationship to Black diasporic cultural production and its global circulation.
What is Blackness to Hartman in Scenes of Subjection and what is Blackness to Moten in In the break? What do they each have to say about the (im)possibility of black subjectivity? How/Can we talk about Black agency?
Important to these recent conversations around Black subjectivity is Cedric Robinson’s tome, Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition (1983). Robinson insists that the social death of slavery was not so totalizing as to transform the internal consciousness of slaves. Although slaves occupied the new ontology created by modernity, they were not of it, and they actively refused it. Whether it be through the flight of the mind via the formation of autonomous cultural and spiritual practice, actual flight to indigenous or maroon communities, or organized rebellion and slave liberation movements. These forms of transgressive (but not necessarily transformative) resistance are what Robinson refers to as the Black Radical Tradition. The Black Radical Tradition continues to be a dynamic process in which Black communities generate temporary and revolutionary solutions to unfreedom(s) by drawing upon a deep collective well of heuristic knowledge production accumulated over generations (regarding resistance and alternative moral visions).
Although Moten draws from a plethora of theoretical sources, two conceptualizations that are especially important throughout his text are Peggy Phelan’s notion of performance and Jacques Derrida’s notion of referentiality. Phelan’s assertion that performance is ephemeral—i.e. that performance disappears—is (still) a hotly contested idea within the field of performance studies. That performance has things that language cannot capture is an overarching idea of Phelan’s (extremely Lacanian) Unmarked: The Politics of Performance. Performance in this way is inherently about loss. It is this definition of performance with which Moten engages throughout In The Break, specifically through his discussions of screams/moans, falsettos, and echoes. Moten provocatively fleshes out connections between performance, blackness, and Heideggerian objects and objectification. Moten pushes us to think not only about performance puts us into contact with loss (and specifically that of chattel slavery) but also, as he explicitly states in the final chapter of the book, the resistance of the object. In conversation with Hartman, Moten asks: what are the ways in which we can locate moments of resistance in black objectification?
Derrida’s notion of citationality is another idea that Moten consistently engages—and challenges—throughout the text. In “Signature Event Context,” Derrida posits that the absence of a reader, writer, and object being written about makes writing transferable—and ultimately allows it to communicate something from one person to another. As a result, writing depends on signs, which in turn depend on referentiality. Writing, in other words, refers to something that is absent. Writing’s iterability is in this way performative. Like Diana Taylor’s notion of the scenario, writing has to have happened before to be recognizable as such. For Derrida, writing is not only the limited act but also links up to Foucauldian ideas of discourse. Put differently, bodies are and can be written upon. Hartman and Moten both explore the ways in which bodies are written upon. Moten posits that aurality challenges or disrupts these discursive policings, lending his work a sense of optimism not necessarily present in that of Hartman.
Abbey Lincoln performing with Max Roach
Useful Links and Sources
To gain a practical understanding of the performative aspects of sound and the unwritten - that is, what is emphasized through the absence of words - it is useful to engage aurally with several of the performances Moten discusses. While it is impossible to include all of the references on which Moten draws, we would like everyone to consider the following four pieces.
First, Abbey Lincoln performing with Max Roach, a display of the moan/scream which Moten first mentions in “The Resistance of the Object: Aunt Hester’s Scream.” Next, hear Cecil Taylor’s performance of “Chinampas #5’04,” which figures largely in Moten’s first chapter. Finally, listen to Billie Holiday performing “My Man” and “You’ve Changed,” and consider Moten’s attention to the laugh/crack in the voice.
If you are having trouble with either of the texts (and even if you’re not), we urge you to check out the book reviews available for In the Break in MLN volume 118 (5), and Scenes of Subjection in The Drama Review volume 43 (4). Incidentally, the latter review is written by Moten, and the origins of what would become the Introduction to In the Break can very much be traced to the thoughts he offers here. You also might want to consider skimming “‘Words Don’t Go There’: An Interview with Fred Moten” in Callaloo volume 27 (4). We have highlighted several passages we find key to understanding, in particular, Moten’s use of form in his performative writing.
As part of a 3-day event organized and hosted by Akira in Fall 2014, Saidiya Hartman and Fred Moten engaged with other activists, academics, and members of the public to discuss the criminalization and mass incarceration of raced and gendered bodies. As participants in this conversation, titled From Subjection to Subjection, Hartman and Moten offer thoughts and provocations that allow us to see how their work continues to inform contemporary discourse of black totality, social death, and resistance. Segments to check out: