- Blackpentecostal Breath: The Aesthetics of Possibility by Ashon Crawley
by Ashon Crawley. 2016. New York: Fordham University Press. 320 pp., 20 illustrations, notes, index. $82.82 cloth, ISBN: 9780823274543; $24.98 paper, ISBN: 9780823274550. doi:10.1017/S0149767717000274
"What do air, breath, and breathing have to do with black performance, with Blackpentecostal aesthetics?" Ashon Crawley asks (33). Blackpentecostal Breath: The Aesthetics of Possibility, a lush meditation on black living, black precarity, and black aesthetics, provides an answer. Crawley focuses on Black Pentecostalism, a multiracial, multiclass, and multinational Christian sect, a strand of which congealed in Los Angeles, California, in 1906. However, as the author makes clear, this book is not a history of Pentecostalism. In making a distinction between belief and practice, Crawley traces a black aesthetic that crops up from this distinctly black pentecostal repertoire.
Exaltations including shouting, noisemaking, whooping, and speaking in tongues are, he argues, collective, communal modes of black pneuma. They represent what Crawley calls "otherwise possibilities" that, by nature of their very constitution, challenge racialized knowledges and the violence inherent to such categorization. Crawley understands "otherwise" as copious and imaginative, as "a word that names plurality as its core operation, otherwise bespeaks the ongoingness of possibility, of things existing other than what is given, what is known, what is grasped" (24).
Antiblackness depends on shortening, if not extinguishing, black breath, and Crawley pursues black lifeworlds that are insurgent precisely because they insist on black collective aliveness. "These choreographic, sonic, and visual aesthetic practices and sensual experiences" the author writes, "are not only important objects of study for those interested in alternative modes of social organization, but they also yield a general hermeneutics, a methodology for reading culture" (4). He continues: "What I am arguing throughout is that the disruptive capacities found in the otherwise world of Blackpentecostalism is but one example of how to produce a break with the known, the normative, the violent world of western thought and material condition" (4).
Breath, although individualized, is a group activity, one inherently involved in a practice of sharing. Thus, breath is at once indexical of the violent strictures that bridle black life, even while it (a Blackpentecostal aesthetic) exceeds the boundaries of that violence. Black flesh is treated, he writes, as "discardable, as inherently violent and antagonistic, as necessarily in need of removal, remediation," and yet black folks have always enacted performative modes, reliant on breathing, that refuse the indignity of this fact (1). Very early in the book Crawley argues that black social life is an abolitionist politics; from there on he shows us just how alive, effusive, and fleshy abolition can be.
In chapter 1, "Breath," Crawley outlines his black breath framework, turning his attention to Blackpentecostal women preachers and their "whooping" practices. By extending what he calls "blackness pneumatology," Crawley argues "that Blackpentecostal whooping during preaching and praying responds to the eclipsing of black breath through aesthetic breathing" (27). In the second chapter, "Shouting," the author offers "choreographic itinerary and protocol" to detail the intimacy between sound and movement within Blackpentecostal traditions. Shouting refuses the distinction between sound and dance; it thus demands a different interpretive framework through which to make sense of its particular efficacy. Chapter 3, "Noise," takes on testimony and tarrying to show "how Blackpentecostal choreosonics manifest resistance that exists before and against the power and force of aversion" (144). In the fourth and final chapter, "Tongues," Crawley writes about the relationship between flesh, breath, and "speaking in tongues." Regarding the Fisk Jubilee Singers, Crawley considers "how knowledge is produced and transformed in the setting of the university, how these institutional settings often require a reduction of black sound, of blackness, of Blackpentecostal aesthetic practice" (29).
It is the second chapter, "Shouting," on which I would like to linger, since its resonances with and implications for dance studies abound. Here, the author considers Calvinist theology and Enlightenment philosophy to approach the spatial movements that contribute [End Page 109] to and impact on "the aesthetic value of Blackpentecostalism" (92). Crawley clearly names how an aversion to blackness and to Blackpentecostal aesthetics has worked to structure theology and philosophy by way of...