- Composing Blackness:Moten's Black and Blur
Fred Moten's Black and Blur composes a rejoinder to the historic catastrophe of slavery and its aftermath in persisting institutionalized racism. Inasmuch as catastrophe translates as a turning down, Moten responds in kind, turning down the dominant discourses of political reassurance that relegate the racial divide to the past. Blurring lines between performers and political figures, as he stages encounters among theorists, artists and political actors (many of whom have hitherto failed to rise above the level of mainstream, i.e., "white" recognition), Moten enacts a politics of aesthetics with startling juxtapositions whose jolting effects resemble those Walter Benjamin famously attributed to [End Page 982] Dadaism's images. Among Moten's thought-provoking blendings and clashes are encounters between Shakespeare and Stokely Carmichael, among Patrice Lumumba, Leonardo Da Vinci, and Sergei Eisenstein, and between Theaster Gates and Gordon-Matta-Clark. Each genre intermediation locates figures in alternative political frames, challenging institutionalized understandings of who deserves consideration in the archives of political history and for what.
If we heed Moten's subtitle, "consent not to be a single being," we have access to the center of the intellectual and political project running through his work over the past couple of decades. Although some of the political implications of that line have been articulated by others—for example the Norwegian novelist/essayist Karl Ove Knausgaard who writes, "the wisest person knows the I is nothing in itself" (133)—what is distinctive is the way it is implemented in the grammatical tonality of Moten's text. The "we" (referencing the African American assemblage) is a tonic to which the sonically figured text keeps returning as it consorts dialogically with the "I" of Moten's personal reflections and the "they" of his most valued interlocutors: Cedric Sadiya Hartman, Cedric Robinson, Theodor Adorno, Charles Mingus, Nathaniel McKay, Randy Martin (and many others).
Like Moten's other writings, Black and Blur is (among many other things) a musical text; along with the "we," "black and blur" constitute metaphorical tonics that anchor the melody sounding throughout his investigations. The musicality of Moten's Black and Blur makes a review a daunting task, first because his prose is so lyrical and expansive that almost anything written in response can come across as prosaic and reductive, and second because his thinking, which ranges over an extraordinary set of references (theoretical and artistic), is so conceptually rich it's hard to concentrate. Almost every page has innovative moments that sent me off on elaborate conceptual reveries, encouraging me to think anew what I have been trying to think about heretofore. For example, having been concerned of late with making sense of what constitutes an event, I ran into Moten's remarks, early in the book, on the way Sidiya Hartman "uses up the word event" and his suggestion that in confrontation with the fact of slavery we are dealing with "a durational field rather than event" (xii). Anyone seeking to make sense of historical moments has to be stopped in her tracks, prompted to rethink the more fundamental issues (and hence vocabularies and grammars) of temporality upon which any concern with events must be predicated.
So I will begin obliquely by capitalizing on the first long reverie that Moten's Black and Blur provoked. I'll worry some of the notes to allow the resonances of Moten's thinking to achieve broadened effects before easing my way into more direct responses to what is in the score. Confronting Moten's two very historically complex concept/images, "black" and "blur," I recall a recent reading event in which they have been enriched for me, namely a viewing of the photographs of the black South African, Santu Mofokeng, historically contextualized by Teju Cole's commentary on them. As Cole puts it, Mofokeng's images are marked by his compositional and stylistic work; they abound in "deep shadow and blur"—for example an unclear image of body parts on a train, captioned...