Non-fiction: 5th Column
Black and Blur
Maggie Nelson

An ecstatic occasion: a response to the first book
in a new trilogy by Fred Moten.

Black and Blur (consent not to be a single being), by Fred Moten, Duke University Press, 339 pages, $27.95

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I’m going to try to write something really plain about poet/critic/theorist Fred Moten’s new collection of essays, Black and Blur, which feels hard, because Black and Blur, like all of Moten’s work, isn’t written plainly, and I’ve always felt a little foolish coming at Moten’s writing in the (idiot) idiom of lucidity—a kind of pretended straight arrow at a field defined by incessant motion, escape. Even if I admit that such an approach is a fool’s errand wholly inadequate to what makes Moten’s work so worthwhile and sustaining (albeit an approach socialized by my own maternal; my mother teaches business writing), it still feels, well, foolish. But as Fred once said to me in his irreducibly generous, space-making, permission-giving way, “Let’s just agree to be stupid for one another!” OK then, Fred—here goes stupid . . .

Because I know Moten in a world that opposes entanglement and clear-sightedness, this must technically be a “response” rather than a “review” of Black and Blur. (The book is the first of three to be published as the consent not to be a single being series, a phrase borrowed from Édouard Glissant; two companion volumes, Stolen Life and The Universal Machine, are blessedly, impossibly, soon to follow.) And thank God this isn’t a review, really, because how preposterous and off the cake it would feel, at least for me, to drag Black and Blur into the world of appraisal or evaluation of argument. Others can do that, and do it well. It’s not that I’m not interested in Moten’s contributions and interventions into ongoing, crucial discussions about the relation between, say, as he puts it, “the critical analysis of anti-blackness to the celebratory analysis of blackness.” I am, and deeply so. As Moten intimates in Black and Blur’s preface, that relationship is, in some sense, what it’s all about: “It hurts so much that we have to celebrate. That we have to celebrate is what hurts so much. Exhaustive celebration of and in and through our suffering, which is neither distant nor sutured, is black study.” (As in the opening of 2003’s In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition, Moten locates this foundational interdependence in the work of scholar Saidiya Hartman: “In the Break also began with an attempt to engage Hartman; as you can see, I can’t get started any other way.” Indeed, it’s Hartman’s theorization of “the diffusion of terror” in black expression that summons and undergirds Moten’s inquiry into the nature of that diffusion, its multiple ontological possibilities.) 

It’s more that so many debates between, say, something we might call “celebration” and something we might call “terror,” or something we might call “optimism” and something we might call “pessimism,” or something we might call “Afro-diasporic cosmopolitanism” and something we might call “the African American cultural field,” or something we might call “aesthetics” and something we might call “politics,” often become legible only via an unwarranted polarization that Moten’s work not only sidesteps but labors to offer inventive (yet also already-there) alternatives to. It feels more vital to me to use this moment to note how Black and Blur produces felt experiences of these alternatives, carves new pathways through art and thought, which, in turn, re-makes and multiplies the possible relations between them. Such a focus admittedly foregoes, at least for the moment, any granular attention to Black and Blur’s specific content (the essays include kaleidoscopically rich ruminations on Patrice Lumumba, Glenn Gould, Miles Davis, Lord Invader, Charles Mingus, Pras/Ol’ Dirty Bastard/Mýa, Theodor Adorno, Benjamin Patterson, Thornton Dial, Masao Miyoshi, Mike Kelley, Jimmie Durham, Theaster Gates, Charles Gaines, Wu Tsang, Bobby Lee, and many, many others—ruminations made ocean-deep via Moten’s particular style of layering a wide variety of figures and discourses in each essay). But it may shed some light on how and why Moten’s writing has become so crucial to so many in recent years, which links to how and why the publication of Black and Blur feels like nothing less than an ecstatic occasion—both in and of itself, and as a promissory note of more to come. 

Simply put, Moten is offering up some of the most affecting, most useful, theoretical thinking that exists on the planet today—a true leg out of the rut so much criticism has fallen into of pointing out how a certain phenomenon has both subversive and hegemonic effects (“kinda hegemonic, kinda subversive,” as Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick once put it) that has proven so durable since (at least) Foucault. It’s hard to write such sentences without being (happily) haunted by the fact that Black and Blur, like all Moten’s writing, disallows the kind of heroic “radical singularity” that might otherwise attach itself to the proper names of Moten’s subjects, including “Fred Moten.” (Hence the “consent not to be a single being” rubric.) As Moten writes about Black Panther Bobby Lee in Black and Blur’s final chapter: “Bobby Lee is another name we give to the xeno-generosity of entanglement: the jam, that stone gas, a block club in a block experiment, an underpolitical block party, a maternal ecology of undercommon stock in poverty, in service, genius in black and blur.” In a 2015 interview, Moten explains further, vis-à-vis Bessie Smith: “I don’t think I’m so committed to the idea of the radical singularity of Bessie Smith as I am committed to a kind of radicalization of singularity, that we now come to recognize under the name of Bessie Smith, which the figure, the avatar, that we now know as Bessie Smith was sent to give us some message about. I think of Bessie as an effect of sociality—she was sent by sociality to sociality, in that way that then allows us to understand something about how the deep and fundamental entanglement that we are still exists in relation to and by way of and as a function of this intense, radical, constant differentiation.” 

As moved and impressed as I am by Moten’s writing—its spectacular range, its unending nuance, its voluminousness, its flashes of pique (don’t miss the footnote addressing British scholar Paul Gilroy on pages 293–95), its swerve and song—I’m perhaps even more inspired by its felt understanding and communication of what it means to be “sent by sociality to sociality,” and its depth of commitment to enmeshment, manifest in its style, orientation, and sound. Back in the 1980s, critic Barbara Johnson pointed out that the self-resistance performed by so many (white) male poststructuralist theorists often had the paradoxical (though altogether predictable) effect of consolidating the theorists’ authority and visibility. It’s like, given the system’s (name a system) longstanding need/desire for male genius, those dudes couldn’t even give it away. Some might argue that the ultra-passionate lauding of Moten courts a similar effect. But I’m not worried. Unlike a lot of those guys, Moten really doesn’t care about that consolidation. He really doesn’t. His work tirelessly deflects it, unravels it, renders it irrelevant and antithetical to the tasks at hand. Selflessness, for him, and for us in reading him, isn’t a new coin to spin in the marketplace of ideas. Rather, as he writes, “It’s nothing. It ain’t no thing. Selflessness ain’t about nobility or even generosity. The substance of its ethics is of no account, no count off, no one two, just a cut and then people be grooving.” 

Black and Blur differs from In the Break (and 2013’s The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study, written with Stefano Harney) in that many of the pieces it collects—like the ones about Kelley, Gates, Patterson, Tsang, and Durham—first circulated in an art context. For this reason, I think it makes sense to consider Black and Blur as an event in art criticism today. That Moten has become a much sought-after art writer delights me for many reasons. One, I get to read him on artists I already care about, or whom I will soon care about via the light of his attention. Two, it means more of his presence at museums and galleries—in programming, in print, and, as in the newly opened Trigger: Gender as a Tool and a Weapon show at the New Museum, in the plotting of exhibitions. Three, his wide-ranging, theoretically dense style marks something of a surprise turn in an art world that has been aspiring, over the past decade or so, to move away from the high-theory-soaked language of the October magazine era. It’s almost as if what Moten has on offer is so good that it’s made everyone give up on the desire for something more “accessible,” or at least as far as he’s concerned. Personally, though, I see Moten’s art writing as shooting off in a new, as-yet underdeveloped direction, one that derives from an increased appetite and capacity for philosophy, history, experiment, and lyricism (I think of Deleuze on Francis Bacon, for example, or Avital Ronell’s philosophizing “by way of literature”). I’m all for this development, even if Moten ends up one of its sole or primary practitioners. (It bears repeating, lest we forget: we don’t all have to do the same thing.)

It’s easier, as we all know in abundance these days, to tear down than it is to build, or even to explore; academics have known this for a long time, which is why there’s such a hunger, I think, for theory that feels like it’s whacking its way somewhere fraught and novel with improvised tools, rather than just illuminating that which we already know in increasingly keen measures, no matter how hot-shot radical. Moten’s essays bypass the paranoid logic that has come to characterize “the academy of misery” and instead snowball forth via odd procedures like rubbing, blurring, deviation, infodump, and accretion. Chapters often start out with pellucid, road-map style theses (“In examining this coincidence, and placing it within the context of Lord Invader’s and Mingus’s musical careers and lineages, I hope to attend to some of what is left for us to emulate and correct in the tradition of anticolonial, antiracist, transoceanic aesthetic and political endeavor”); then, a few pages later, we’re “comparing Wilhelm Furtwängler’s and Arturo Toscanini’s divergent modes of conducting Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony”; another page in, and we’re teasing out “a discourse on the relation between jazz and democracy that moves from Ralph Ellison to Hazel Carby”; before dropping deep into a historical scene of African American soldiers marauding in Trinidad in 1943. It’s a loose, hot sprawl whose importance and direction I never doubt, disoriented as I may at times become. 

Moten’s sentences often proceed with similar effect, as in the indelible opening of “Bobby Lee’s Hands”: “Held in the very idea of white people—in the illusion of their strength, in the fantasy of their allyship, in the poverty of their rescue, in the silliness of their melancholy, in the power of their networks, in the besotted rejection of their impossible purity, in the repeated critique of their pitiful cartoon—is that thing about waiting for vacancy to shake your hand while the drone’s drone gives air a boundary.” Trenchant critique that feels headed for a ferocious conclusion suddenly swerves out to “the drone’s drone giving air a boundary.” It bewilders and pleases me that such WTF? moments in Moten’s writing—and there are many—never exasperate me. Instead, I face a choice: I can pause, perhaps endlessly, and self-consciously engage the project of deciphering, or I can skip on, knowing that the sentence will still be there for me, perhaps in five minutes, perhaps in five years, available for re-sounding.

Which brings me to the last thing I want to talk about, which is the way that Moten’s work makes the activities of reading and thinking feel palpably fresh, weird, and vital. I knew, for example, when I agreed to write this piece, that I was agreeing to an impossible task—even before laying eyes on the galley, I knew there was simply no earthly way that I could read Black and Blur in the approximately thirty days I had before deadline. Don’t misunderstand me—this isn’t one of those Amazon reviews exulting in its “I could only read the first ten pages of this book but I’m going to weigh in on it anyway” attitude. I READ Black and Blur, by which I mean every word of it passed through my eyes and ostensibly into my brain. But one of the ontological gifts of Moten’s writing is that you simply can’t (or, I should say, I simply can’t) TAKE IN his sentences in any normative, temporal way. Their intricate design, their dense folds of linkage and reference, their insistence on evacuation and complex arrival, demand re-reading, across space and time, more than almost any other writing I can think of. 

And so—in the month or so that I’ve lived with Black and Blur, I’ve read it in the waiting room of the dermatologist’s office, while watching my son at the playground, on the airplane, perched on the metal stool of an LA Poké bar, in bed, in my office on lockdown due to a phantasmagorical active shooter the day after the Vegas massacre, fighting jetlag on a park bench in Stockholm, and elsewhere. I remember all these places because in each one I understood something different in the writing, found myself able to hear a different tune, tone, or thought. I heard myself struggling to think, then I heard myself thinking. I felt smart, then I felt stupid. I felt in between, then I felt “not in between,” à la C. L. R. James and the title of Black and Blur’s first chapter. In short, I felt myself reading.

In and around all this time, I read the news. I sat on panels. I talked with my lover, my children, friends, and strangers. Sometimes I felt overcome by the frustration—which can tip into rage—that you feel when the conversations you’re having aren’t the ones you wish you were having (Why do you write about the body Did the administration do a good job in Puerto Rico Will tax cuts for the rich produce gains for the middle class Is he a white supremacist or does he just act like one Do you feel ashamed to write the way you write because you have children What are the limits of free speech™ Has feminism been a net gain for women Who has the right to depict what suffering Why do you work in so many different genres and so on.) But here’s the thing: we all know the conversations that we don’t want to be having. We all know how it feels when the terms on offer feel rotten, debased, unworthy. The problem is, in the swirl, we forget what we wanted to be talking about in the first place. We begin to believe that there ever was a first place. The conversations we want to be having always seem like they’re over there, but we’re over here. We get lost in what Moten has hilariously described (in The Undercommons) as “some kind of warped communal alienation in which people are tied together not by blood or a common language but by the bad feeling they compete over.” In which case, you end up with a whole lot of people spending “a whole lot of time thinking about stuff that they don’t want to do, thinking about stuff that they don’t want to be, rather than beginning with, and acting out, what they want.”

Meanwhile, my stained galley of Black and Blur is right in front of me, right beside me, as it has been for the past thirty days. It’s chock full of conversations that I want to be having, about “the armature, the arsenal, of the poor, the ones who, in having nothing, have everything”; “the refusal to fall for the ruses of incorporation and exclusion that say all we can and should desire is citizenship and subjectivity”; “the very idea of trash, of disposability, that is given to the ones relegated to the heap”; the human as “nothing other than this constancy of being both more and less than itself”; the relation between “aesthetic indiscretion and the critique of sovereignty”; “the exhaustion of relational individuality”; and more. It’s full of ways of thinking, looking, feeling, and writing that I want, ways of being that I want, in part because they undo the I and the want. Maybe even the being too. “Here in this vestibule, where we belatedly await our own invention of, our own coming upon, the liberatory, we operate within an incessant escape that might be said to cohabitate with incessant listening.” Black and Blur is there, will be there, for our incessant listening, just as In the Break and The Undercommons have been there for some time now, for repeated, ever-deepening consult and company. 

Not only that, but there will be more. There will be Stolen Life, there will be The Universal Machine. Some might call this trilogy an embarrassment of riches, but I’m not embarrassed. I’m euphoric. For if there’s one thing Moten’s writing and being has taught me, it’s that instead of worrying over “too much of a good thing” in a world overfull with shitty things, we might instead ensure that there are too many good things, too. Black and Blur is part of that.

Maggie Nelson is the author of nine books of poetry and prose, many of which have become cult classics defying categorization. Her nonfiction titles include the National Book Critics Circle Award winner and New York Times bestseller The Argonauts (2015); The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning (Norton, 2011; a New York Times Notable Book of the Year); Bluets (2009; named by Bookforum one of the top ten best books of the past twenty years); The Red Parts (2007, reissued 2016); and Women, the New York School, and Other True Abstractions (2007). Her poetry titles include Something Bright, Then Holes (2007) and Jane: A Murder (2005). She writes frequently about art, and in 2016 was awarded a MacArthur “genius” Fellowship. She currently teaches at USC and lives in Los Angeles.

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