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  • Black Ether
  • J. Kameron Carter (bio) and Sarah Jane Cervenak (bio)

—for the Charleston 9

What remains is the flesh, the living, speaking, thinking, feeling, and imagining flesh: the ether that holds together the world of Man while at the same time forming the condition of possibility for this world’s demise.

—Alexander Weheliye, Habeas Viscus

Clear and high the faint sweet melody rose and fluttered like a living thing, so that the very earth trembled as with the tramp of horses and murmur of angry men.

—W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk [End Page 203]

ether, n.

  1. 1. In ancient cosmological speculation: an element conceived as filling all space beyond the sphere of the moon, and being the constituent substance of the stars and planets and of their spheres.

  2. 2. The refined medium supposed to surround God or the gods in heaven; the refined element supposed to be breathed in heaven or by the gods.

  3. 3. Air; the gaseous substance that is breathed; a form of this.

  4. 4. Physics. An extremely rarefied and elastic substance formerly thought to permeate all space, including the interstices between the particles of ordinary matter.

  5. 5. A sweet-smelling, volatile, flammable liquid made by distilling ethanol with sulphuric acid and used as a solvent, as an intermediate in chemical synthesis, and (esp. formerly) as a general anaesthetic. Also called diethyl ether.

Oxford English Dictionary

What would it mean to think about blackness as that which experimentalizes being, that which, following Denise Ferreira da Silva, Nahum Chandler, and Alex Weheliye, moves as unfettered ur-matter, unthinkable exorbitance, and deregulated transubstantiation?1 What is at stake when black flesh fugitively undulates into and as ether and, in so doing, un/makes the world itself? What might it mean to think about blackness as enacting an un/making, as enacting amid regimes of settlement an unsettling that is also an un/holding, a release of self from its entrapment within property into an alternate intimacy? In many ways, W. E. B. Du Bois originarily philosophizes and poeticizes such movement as “double consciousness,” as the figure of the double. The between. Second sightedness. What emerges in Nathaniel Mackey’s poetics as synesthetic vision of an ictic character inviting “ictic tenancy” at the tremulous meeting ground of this world’s antiblack violence and the unencroachable knowledge/sense of what cannot be killed (2008, 11). Put another way, double consciousness coalesces in the life-ending and life-making corridors engendered by an experience of blackness as ether, at once the mythicized substance ambling around despised flesh and an otherwise creativity exceeding the fungible fantasies masquerading as thought itself. [End Page 204]

Experimentalism | Black Ether

The ether of blackness is, indeed, the condition of possibility of this world, the mythic ground that intoxicates and fortifies whiteness, that which is held and expelled. It is what keeps the God of an onto-theological modernity alive even if such capacity figures as, as Chandler might put it, an unnecessary exorbitance (2013b). Ether is the deregulated, simultaneously brute and ecstatic matter that buttresses the world as we know it. As Christine Battersby writes, “In alchemy, the female is explicitly linked to matter; and to the imperfect: to blackness, coldness, wetness, inertness, and the unformed (the changeable)” (2007, 106). As malleable matter, blackness and femaleness experience their ontological condition, in itself, only as fulfilling Man’s ends, as the ground and air on which the self-determined subject depends.2

But this life-giving capacity also spells the end of Man’s world. That is, following Silva, blackness’s inherent creativity, its generativity, always exceeds the expropriative violences of post-Enlightenment. Even as it is exhausted and arrested and even as the state finds ways to mythicize black creativities as ever-present death-bound potentialities, the ether of blackness countermythically moves alongside wounded black flesh as the safe house and harbor at world’s end. Put differently, blackness’s very deregulatedness, its alchemical and metaphysical play with earth, wind, and fire, always enabled and ended the world as we know it. As Silva argues, it is precisely this unmoored character of blackness—its im/material movements “in excess...


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