In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is Rizvana Bradley. Bradley is Assistant Professor of Film & Media Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. Her book is Anteaesthetics: Black Aesthesis and the Critique of Form.
Book summary, from the publisher:
In Anteaesthetics, Rizvana Bradley begins from the proposition that blackness cannot be represented in modernity's aesthetic regime, but is nevertheless foundational to every representation. Troubling the idea that the aesthetic is sheltered from the antiblack terror that lies just beyond its sanctuary, Bradley insists that blackness cannot make a home within the aesthetic, yet is held as its threshold and aporia. The book problematizes the phenomenological and ontological conceits that underwrite the visual, sensual, and abstract logics of modernity.
Moving across multiple histories and geographies, artistic mediums and forms, from nineteenth-century painting and early cinema, to the contemporary text-based works, video installations, and digital art of Glenn Ligon, Mickalene Thomas, and Sondra Perry, Bradley inaugurates a new method for interpretation—an ante-formalism which demonstrates how black art engages in the recursive deconstruction of the aesthetic forms that remain foundational to modernity. Foregrounding the negativity of black art, Bradley shows how each of these artists disclose the racialized contours of the body, form, and medium, even interrogating the form that is the world itself. Drawing from black critical theory, Continental philosophy, film and media studies, art history, and black feminist thought, Bradley explores artistic practices that inhabit the negative underside of form. Ultimately, Anteaesthetics asks us to think philosophically with black art, and with the philosophical invention black art necessarily undertakes.
Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
Rizvana Bradley: Anteaesthetics tries to engage its readers with an eye toward the historically specific conjuncture with which we are differentially confronted, while at the same time suggesting that the most fundamental and urgent dynamics of this conjuncture are in fact perennial, at least within the context of the modern world (which is to say the antiblack world). So, the book does speak directly to what we could imprecisely (and violently) designate as the post-George Floyd moment, in which, in the U.S. for instance, we find the sometimes complimentary and sometimes contradictory coincidence of a decadent era of liberal racial representationalism and a resurgent racial-colonial revanchism. We find a situation, that is, in which one can come home from work and choose between the Netflix “Black Lives Matter” collection or news coverage of the most recent instance of black people murdered by either police or self-deputized defenders of a supposedly beleaguered civic life that has always been predicated upon black death. My book asks: how does such a morbid and twisted configuration—in which extraction and containment masquerade as celebratory recognition, and genocide is fashioned as self-defense—sustain itself? And how might such a regime shape and constrain even those articulations of black existence and artistry that would aspire to advance an emancipatory project?
Anteaesthetics suggests that unearthing this predicament’s conditions of possibility and impossibility requires a critical interrogation of the aesthetic, which has far too often been taken as either tertiary to the reproduction of the antiblack world, or, no less treacherously, as its antidote—a domain miraculously sheltered from an otherwise unforgiving enclosure, where resistive or reparative politics are presumed to take forms somehow uncorrupted by the terror which permeates every other aspect of our lives. As I stressed a couple of years ago in my preface to an essay co-written with Denise Ferreira da Silva, the modern aesthetic regime is an essential dimension of what makes genocide possible, not least through its concealment of the aesthetic forms genocide assumes.
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
The book actually opens with a scene of activism that helps to illustrate the stakes and everyday dimensionality of an argument that could easily be taken for overly abstract theorization. (Though I would hasten to add, in the spirit of numerous traditions of radical critique, that sometimes what gets called ‘abstraction’ is absolutely necessary for confronting the structures that subtend the most concrete and immediate forms of violence.) The example is drawn from the so-called “summer racial of reckoning” in 2020, during which, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, black rebellions in Minneapolis and elsewhere sparked an ephemeral cascade of multiracial protests around the world against racism and police brutality, and nominally in defense of black life. Specifically, I turn to a photograph, published in The New York Times, of a demonstration in Portland, Oregon, the city which became such a spectacular flashpoint for both the structural antagonisms of the antiblack world and their insufficient suturing by coalitional politics, affirmative representationalism, and familiar choreographies of civil disobedience.
Briefly, my interest in the photograph, and in the image of the political it presents, pivots upon the video projection of Nina Simone’s 1965 performance of “Tomorrow is My Turn” above the front steps of the Multnomah County Justice Center. At stake is not simply the literal projection of Simone’s performance, but the aesthetic projection of a politics always already given in advance, rendered legible so that it might be mollified, recuperated, and instrumentalized in service of the very regime it would seem to refuse. Without in any way diminishing the myriad forms of organizing committed to the sustenance of black existence (and not least those quotidian practices scarcely recognized as political), Anteaesthetics asks: what might happen if we were to attune to the negativity of black art, which poses every extant articulation of the political as a problem, which radically unsettles the very terms of the discourse imposed upon us, and which resounds with an existence that lacks any proper name?
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?
For starters, I want readers to unlearn the assumption that the aesthetic is either autonomous from, secondary to, or merely an instrument for ‘real politics.’ Having established that the aesthetic is neither peripheral nor innocent, I want readers to abandon the notion that the aesthetic proffers an untrammeled ground for the erection of liberatory horizons or other worlds. The reality is much more brutal and beautiful than that. Anteaesthetics explores the ways in which blackness generally, and the black work of art in particular, has been made to suture the social and political through and in service of the modern aesthetic regime. In the language of the book, blackness is made to come before the antiblack world and the aesthetic regime that works to sustain it. Before, in this sense, has a dual spatiotemporal valence, signaled in the book’s title by the prefix ante- (meaning “before, in front of; previous, existing beforehand; introductory to”). In short, I argue that blackness is at once the threshold of the aesthetic and ceaselessly subject to its depredations, and that this forced anteriority is essential to the ongoing reproduction and renewal of the modern world order and the various forms that comprise its onslaught.
But although this itinerary of unlearning is necessary for rethinking the relationships between modernity, the aesthetic, and the nature, appearance, and bearings of black existence, it’s ultimately black art, in both a highly specific and expansive sense of the term, that is the book’s real interest. For black art, which is both indispensable and anathema to the aesthetic, constantly overturns the ground upon which it would appear to stand. Black art inhabits and extends a radical critique of not only the world, but of the very foundations of the will to worlding.
Which intellectuals and/or intellectual movements most inspire your work?
Well, this book takes up a broad range of fields, and proceeds from a commitment not only to working across the often violent and arbitrary fortifications within and between disciplines (i.e. interdisciplinarity), but to excavating, unsettling, and refusing the very foundations of these disciplines.
That being said, Anteaesthetics is indebted to and engages numerous scholarly formations. First and foremost, black critical theory (a nomination capacious enough to hold the works of Harriet Jacobs, W.E.B. Du Bois, Zora Neale Hurston, and Frantz Fanon in dynamic confluence with contemporary critiques of ontology, phenomenology, epistemology, and historiography within black studies). Also Continental philosophy (from Karl Marx and Martin Heidegger to Jacques Derrida, Jean-Luc Nancy, and Jacques Rancière). Other essential, and often indiscrete, fields include art history and theory (e.g. Hal Foster, Kobena Mercer, Huey Copeland, Rosalind Krauss, Michael Fried, Krista Thompson, Charmaine Nelson, W.J.T. Mitchell, and Peter Osborne), film theory (e.g. Tom Gunning, Mary Ann Doane, Kara Keeling, and Vivian Sobchack), media theory (e.g. Mark Hansen, Alexander G. Weheliye, Shane Denson, Jussi Parikka, Louis Chude-Sokei, Kodwo Eshun, Eugene Thacker, and Simone Browne), affect theory (e.g. Lauren Berlant and Sianne Ngai), and architectural theory (e.g. Mabel O. Wilson, Mark Wigley, and Charles L. Davis II).
Needless to say, sometimes the engagement with these different formations necessarily takes the form of fierce critique, as, for example, in my interrogation of Jean-Luc Nancy’s conception of the body. At other times, my intervention is more akin to a deepening or extension of a particular concept, as with Eugene Thacker’s notion of “dark media.” And then, in some instances, I’m simply trying to bring the brilliant insights of crucial thinkers to bear on this particular project, as with my turn to Joy James’s concept of the “captive maternal” or Jennifer L. Morgan’s analysis of the racially gendered violence that marks the production of interiority.
But I would also add that much of the philosophical labor extended by this book—and not least the labor of critiquing philosophy—moves by way of the artworks the book explores, and thus by way of the artists whose singular practices and inhabitations have enabled radical revivifications of thought. So, without underestimating the intellectual contributions of, say, Rancière, to the project Anteaesthetics undertakes, I would underscore that the critical, theoretical, and philosophical contributions of an artist like Glenn Ligon are no less crucial.
Which two books published in the last five years would you recommend to BAR readers? How do you envision engaging these titles in your future work?
Only two books? That’s a difficult ask! Alright, I’d say my first recommendation would be Calvin Warren’s Ontological Terror: Blackness, Nihilism, and Emancipation. Warren’s book exemplifies the kind of unflinching commitment to thinking through the conditions that sustain the world’s racial metaphysics that I really admire. I will certainly be thinking with the open set of philosophical problematics regarding the metaphysical operations of antiblackness that Warren has generously given us for many years to come.
The second recommendation would be Simone White’s Dear Angel of Death. I won’t try to thematically encapsulate White’s work, but I will say that I have been struck by how its contravirtuosic mobilization and extension of a series of philosophical lacunas and aporias—particularly regarding black music and musicality—rub and strain against both contemporary (auto)theory and experimental poetry. What’s more, I think she doesn’t shy away from the (un)gendered (on this, see Hortense Spillers) frictions and fissures that undergird black thought, artistry, and existence, but in fact inhabits them, in their agonistic exorbitance. As someone who understands that the formal dictates and constraints placed upon theoretical writing are all too often arrayed against anything that might be called thought, let alone invention, White’s work remains an inspiration and a guide.
Roberto Sirvent is editor of the Black Agenda Report Book Forum.