- Revisioning the Archival Turn
Readers of African-American literary criticism will already be familiar with Stephen Best's nowfamous provocation from his 2012 essay "On Failing to Make the Past Present" that "a sense of racial belonging rooted in the historical dispossession of slavery seems unstable grounds on which to base a politics."1 Regardless of one's orientation to that article and the critical conversation that it generated, None Like Us: Blackness, Belonging, Aesthetic Life provides an extensive framework through which an astute reader might question the assumptions, orientations, and biases that undergird the field. The monograph allows Best the space to elaborate a methodology, one that depends upon a careful examination of the critical desires and practices that have come to define Black cultural studies. Bringing together an extensive critique of the collective impulse in Black studies and a discourse of "unbelonging" from queer studies, Best argues that "there is something impossible about blackness" (2). Taking its title from David Walker's 1833 pamphlet Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World—wherein he prays "that none like us may ever live again until time shall be no more"—Best begins with historical refusal. Walker's prayer negates the connection between the past and present; it denies Best a filial relationship with Walker because, subject to Walker's wish, [End Page 629] Best does not exist (9). How, then, do we position ourselves in relation to this history that denies our existence? Best argues that we must do it in ways that preserve history's contingency, resisting narratives that relate history to the present and that define political collectives through recourse to the historical. In his estimation we must face history through glimpses and glances, and we must do so alone.
The first half of the book is most concerned with the art object and its ability to "perform, in one way or another, an intellectual or philosophical project" (34). United by a resistance to centralized history and memory as markers of cohesion, these art works produce their own contingent conceptions of "freedom" that Best encourages critics to adapt. The first chapter, titled "My Beautiful Elimination," reads visual art by Ghanaian artist El Anatsui, the Los Angelesbased artist Mark Bradford, and the poem "Boy Breaking Glass" by Gwendolyn Brooks. Best posits these works as "surfaces that point reflexively to their own, internal complexities so that they can also be said to offer their own form of critical understanding and, in that sense, to be the very medium in which thought happens" (34). He focuses on the ephemeral, changing, mutable qualities of each work, arguing that through perceptual effects that resist permanence, they take on a "self-consuming form" (34). The work of El Anatsui provides a phenomenologically confounding example. Fading Cloth is a wallsized installation that appears to be a tapestry made of gold but upon closer examination is revealed to be bottle caps fastened together by copper wire. In fact, the bottle caps were collected by the artist, and their materiality gestures to a history of exchange between West Africa and the United States emanating from the slave trade through global capitalism in the twenty-first century. Best deemphasizes the work's frame, focusing instead on the effect produced by its trompe l'oeil, and what happens in the space between perceiving the tapestry as gold and realizing one's mistake. In that moment, he claims, "the artwork ceases to exist; it forces you to lose sight of form, and what have disappeared along with this form are all of the symbolic 'links' it was said to sustain" (50). The artwork produces the trick and, in doing so, resists the historical and contextual frameworks that might impose other meanings.
The chapter also contains an elucidation of how the critic might practice self-consuming work. Drawing on Cedric Robinson and Robin D. G. Kelley, Best identifies the Black radical imagination as a tradition that "inspires the urge to find other ways to articulate loss" (42). Aesthetic markers like [End Page 630] opacity and surrealism...