In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is Ren Ellis Neyra. Elis Neyra is Associate Professor of English at Wesleyan University. Their book is The Cry of the Senses: Listening to Latinx and Caribbean Poetics.
Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
Ren Ellis Neyra: In the West today, one sees the bloodthirsty forces of white ethno-racial fantasies of essential relation to a land, vigilantism, and the logic of countering the brutality of sovereignty with another, brutal sovereignty. With this in mind, one can read my book to critique how white Latinidad and white Puerto Ricanness grieve loss of wholeness and sovereignty through cultural nationalist discourses, and thereby disguise the inexhaustibly violent necessity of antiblackness in those discourses. My book engages and also refuses to repair the field of Latina/o/x Studies, for example. Courting the discourse of Latinidad through “minoritarianism,” or some mode of appropriative representation that is nonblack yet obfuscates historical whiteness’ range, will reproduce antiblackness; repair is unethical in this context. The intellectual work that I see as sensible is to exfoliate Latinidad’s function in the history of the forces noted in this paragraph’s opening.
With that said, The Cry of the Senses holds out the possibility of some not-known, others might say im-possible (hence crucial), ethical way of being that is under the influence of “relation” (a la Glissant) while simultaneously insisting on slowing down with the assumptions of “solidarity.” In its conceptualization of “besideness” from a Caribbeanist vantage, by which it neither forecloses anti-relation nor forces relation, my book leaves open the reading that white Latinidad’s discourse of selfhood find something ‘good’ for itself in black alienation and death. What is more clear to me now than what is rendered in the “on the hand,” “on the other hand” modes of my book, is that white Latinidad, like white Caribbeanness and white Latin Americanness, has disguised its historical role in the procedures of the Christianized West that have made civic life possible via the “gratuitous violence” of “slave-making,” which fixated on “the generative destruction” of “the blackened position.”
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
I would hope that readers with these devotions take away language around the histories of what could have been. My chapter two about the F.A.L.N. and non-sovereignty is relevant here. Not so as to recuperate and romanticize what could have been, which would do yet another historical violence. Rather, to think our time through the range of what it inherits, and, thereby, to slow down with what we think constitutes an historically accountable ethics. Since I cannot—and would not—dispense with the formalism and structuralism of my training in close-reading and linguistics, I hope that on the level of the sentence, the book registers the excess that normativity destroys because it cannot undestructively bear its relation thereto. The sonic configures this excess in the archives of the book. In conveying some “unruly” figures of representation and relation, I hope that the book also shows how to read for even unruliness’ potential usefulness to sovereignty. My training is not in telling the reader what to do about such, and while there are moments of quasi-political fantasy in the book, they are merely that, and, if anything, should be deconstructed.
What I would tack on, because I observe a fashionable, hyperbolic, and compulsory “healing” trend mediated between academia, the art world, and community organizations, is an attunement to the violences done in the names of vitalism, proximity, and repair, which often use blackness as trope of what must die for others to live. I would demarcate a clear breach in my thinking today that is entirely suspicious of the aforementioned list of signs when deployed in uncritically “speculative” procedures, some of which I marked in my book’s Preface, but more clearly render in the book’s “exergue,” or, perhaps, what the book was written to arrive at: “The Question of Ethics in the Semiotics of Brownness” (sx salon, October 2020). I discuss this further in my essay, “White Mythologies,” in Small Axe Journal, issue 68, by engaging several critical interlocutors’ keen readings of my book.
We know readers will learn a lot from your book, but what do you hope readers will un-learn? In other words, is there a particular ideology you’re hoping to dismantle?
Enforcing the telos of repair and solidarity without thinking about their imperial force. In this vein, Édouard Glissant has become a metonym—as have Kamau Brathwaite and M. NourbeSe Philip through highly selective readings of their respective poieses—for the Caribbean tout court as locus of “creolization,” and “creolization” as racialized peace, and the aforesaid as release for the West from its history. Even if Glissant’s latter, vitalist oeuvre lends itself to aspects of this reading, it’s questionable, if symptomatic, to reductively wield a black thinker to do one’s cultural-imperial bidding.
Moreover, and on the level of metaphor, the Caribbean is one of many geographic names (e.g., the torrid zone) for fallenness from being, forced conversion, and dismemberment. In this context it behooves us to question exceptionalizing Puerto Rico’s colonial status even as one thinks its colonial difference—Vieques is an aporia of this way of thinking within the (Puerto Rican) archipelago itself. The discourse of exception will only renew the inexhaustibility of antiblackness, in which historical, white creole Puerto Ricanness is complicit—in the entire Caribbean region. (Look, anecdotally, at the tendencies of internet activism that position Puerto Rico in relation to Hawai’i, but not Haiti, in the name of solidarity and “shared” nonblack indigeneity. What drives such?)
Much of my book thinks about Puerto Rico as non-sovereign archipelago via the aesthetic ideology of Puerto Rican filmmaker Beatriz Santiago Muñoz’s cinema, and specifically thinks about Vieques in her cinema by “listening to it” and how it signifies: outside of the discourse of Puerto Rican nationhood; in commercial and conceptual relation to other parts of the Caribbean and other sites of enslavement and marronage; and with regards to U.S. Naval occupation into the 21st century. It may sound “basic,” but there are imperial and cultural reasons why (including a haunted, white Puerto Rican ethno-nationalism) thinking Puerto Rico as part of a not-salvific-for-others-Caribbean is difficult.
Who are the intellectual heroes that inspire your work?
My book traces one genealogy of the cry, a figure that functions as: 1. a disturbance of selfhood; and 2. a disturbance that selfhood and reason can, nevertheless, re-incorporate into their system of meanings—if, sometimes, with difficulty and force. So, the cry is not a figure of ‘total’ linguistic aberration, but it sometimes makes the One’s hold on language tremble and fear a rupture that could not be readily subsumed and represented.
I frame things thusly to now say that the cry retraces my readerly formation for this book in the writing of Édouard Glissant, Jacques Derrida, Fred Moten’s In the Break, José Quiroga’s Tropics of Desire, Beatriz Santiago Muñoz, and their thinking of sens and Sinn, sense (i.e., the sensory or the sign) and meaning. In the history of modernity, blackness is sometimes conflated with pure sound (or, song) and no reason. This dyadic overload generates scenes that require close-reading to show how racialized representation operates. Cries often appear where an account of the sensory frays from the force of racialized representation, and my book is one attempt to attend to such, particularly through what it calls “multisensorial listening,” which both is close-reading and enacts a detour from the visual that returns to it with the insights of re-attuned audition.
The book’s story also changed in an experience that I give an account of in chapter three—a deliberately sensorial and listening experiment in Vieques in 2015 conceived of by Santiago Muñoz. Because of my interpretation of my training in theories of lyric poetry, listening is relevant to how I approach any aesthetic appearance, be that a performance, a film, or a poem, and the experience that I merely allude to here is also germane to what inspired my book’s thinking about the sensory and history.
In what way does your book help us imagine new worlds?
Honestly, it does not, in part because my book emerges from reading archives of torture and colonization, and, in part, because I would not know how to define “worlds” that would be “new.” The “New World” seems to do just fine reinstating itself, regardless of the performatives aimed against it (I critically allude to my own). I must use this question to disavow the hyperbole that one reads in some of the genealogy repeated in my book via nonblack queer/affect studies, black vitalist performance studies, and late-Glissant, that would render a party as “a world,” a sex club “a world,” a breath “a world,” or argue for a reassertion of “essence,” even if “minoritarian,” as salvific. (For whom?!) This “worlding” trope is symptomatic of the racial limits of object relations theory and the low-key-protestant-literalism of speech act theory. As a re-reader of my work, I avow suspicion and only intensify the pause my book puts on what ethics is possible in a discursive situation that compulsively makes black suffering and death necessary for “worlding.”
My book does think about “the ground” from which it speaks, and enacts a story told by lyric theory about lyric poems: an “I” moves across a topos, through encounters with sensory, often auditory, phenomena—encounters that disturb. Where one way of reading lyric might position an onlooker, I have positioned a listener. The listener trope does not possess perceptual purity but appeals to the trope of the senses and slows down the dynamics of perception and meaning, culture and politics. The book encourages sensorial detours in the reader to pose questions of ethics.
I would close by saying that one must be cautious about romanticizing something as Western-philosophically-historied as “the senses.” The Cartesian discourse of the senses emerges concurrently with the economy and legality of captivity of blackened people of African descent. So, one cannot, especially as a white Caribbeanist, wield “the senses” as some trope of rehabilitation or escape; nor can one dispense with having to read Descartes in one’s attempts to not rehabilitate the violent force of the universal subject.
 I am evoking the thinking and wording of Frank Wilderson III, Colin Dayan, Dixa Ramírez-D’Oleo, and Jared Sexton, respectively.
 Read the scholarship of Tyrone Palmer, David Marriott, and Axelle Karera in this vein.
Roberto Sirvent is editor of the Black Agenda Report Book Forum.