BAR Book Forum: R.A. Judy’s Book, “Sentient Flesh”
The long tradition of radical black critique in popular forms of expression gives us material on which to model our re-imagining of the world.
‘With these performances of poiēsis in black, we make the leap of invention Fanon called for.’
In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is R.A. Judy. Judy is Professor of Critical and Cultural Studies at the University of Pittsburgh. His book is Sentient Flesh: Thinking in Disorder, Poiesis in Black.
Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
R.A. Judy: Understanding the current political and social climate, the current political economy, entails understanding the mindset that got us here. That means understanding the history of the main ideas from which our notions of who is fully human and who is not originate. For instance, the invention of the Negro as property in the seventeenth-century was founded not only on a philosophical theory of individual property rights as the foundation of a just and rational social order, but also on the premise that only those members of the species who conceive of the natural order in terms of reasoned calculation are truly human and naturally superior to those who do not. In other words, at the heart of the political economy of capitalist colonialism and slavery is the anthropological bifurcation whereby the truly human have rights and entitlements that those who are lesser humans do not, as well as the duty to lift-up, meaning civilize, those lesser creatures; and that duty is what legitimates their dominion over the world. When we understand that then we understand that changing the current political and social system requires overturning, or getting beyond the foundations of that anthropology. Frantz Fanon termed such overcoming, epistemic rupture, by which he meant the undertaking of a completely different way of thinking about the world and our function in it. In that sense, the mid-twentieth century global struggle for decolonization was not merely about ending European military occupation and economic exploitation; it was about achieving a different way of thinking about humanity in the world. Sentient Flesh contributes to and extends that struggle by providing an account of how those people who were defined by capitalist modernity as proprietary things created and sustained in the interstices of that world order multifarious sets of practices of living that expressed over generations ways of performing human being. Fred Moten has referred to these practices as “black performance.” If we regard this performing in the Aristotelian mode as “cosmological mimesis,” meaning the material representation of being-in-the-world, then, in that same mode, we can also call it poiēsis in black. Let me emphasize what is at stake in this designation by recalling that Aristotle described poiēsis as λέγειν γένοιτο (légein génito), “saying possibility.” So, these performances of poiēsis in black are iterative sayings of what is possible—I want to be clear, I’m talking about concrete forms such as ring shouts and spirituals, invisible church sermons and “worldly” work songs, as well as the blues, jazz, toasts, and even everyday signifying. My chief argument in Sentient Flesh: Thinking in Disorder, Poiēsis in Black is that carefully studying the traditions of poiēsis in black will provide us with the animative materiality for bringing about a different world order.
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
That the distinction between practice and thinking is not only false, but shuts us off from a rich tradition of creating a viable world of dignity despite the persistent violence of capitalism. True, we need to know what we are fighting against. More importantly, however, we need to know what we are fighting for and why it matters; and not in privative terms but in procreative terms. Much of the discourse about anti-black racism that is driving the current protest movement is focused on the bio-ethnographic raciology conception of blackness. While that conception has clearly informed the perception at large of black people, it tells us little to nothing about the ways in which those people live their lives, the ways in which they understand the cosmos and their place in it—the performative practices I referred to earlier as poiēsis in black. Let me be clear, I’m talking here about popular expressive forms such as the blues, spirituals; the forms that Kalamu Ya Salaam and Tom Dent of the BLAKARTSOUTH project proclaimed were foundation to their experimental poetics. In this, they concurred with Larry Neal and Amiri Baraka, contra Maulana Karenga’s invalidation of the blues for “teaching resignation.” In and with these performative practices, we are activated to move against the strictures of capitalism that limit the possibilities of life to market forces and their concomitant politics of securitization. With these performances of poiēsis in black, we make the leap of invention Fanon called for. With these forms we are, and always have been creating worlds of possibility in spite of, in the interstices of capitalist modernity; that modernity which Zygmunt Bauman has aptly described as characterized by the liquefaction of the bonds that interlock individual choices in collective projects and actions—the patterns of communication and co-ordination between individually conducted life policies and political action of human collectives. Bauman refers to the instrumentalities of these bonds as patterns and codes of sociality, which we readily recognize as semiosis, in the sense of a systemic process of signification. In the current phase of modernity’s liquefaction, those semiosis are displaced by that of the ubiquitous free-market in which nearly everything is monetized and fungible. This, of course, already happened to black people in the seventeenth-century with the advent of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, whereby whatever semiosis the captured souls loaded into the hulls of the slave ship came with— whether Wolof, Bambara, Fulfulde, or Yoruba—were liquefied and remolded into the exchangeable commodity called “Negro.” The compelling violent force of modernity’s liquefaction notwithstanding, elements of those semiosis remained in the stream, as it were. So, with respect to the so-called Negro, we can say there are multiple semiosis in play with inflecting iterations of fluidity, which I call para-semiosis. Although instigated by modernity’s liquefaction, that para-semiosis is oriented toward the proliferate fluidity—in rap we call it “the flow”— of perpetual invention. Our social activism needs to entail that orientation; indeed, it needs to be informed by it.
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?
I hope that readers will learn that we do not need to base our struggle for a more just humane world on ontology; that the long tradition of philosophical ontology, on which the concomitantly long tradition of political theory and science is based, is fundamentally flawed by hierarchical anthropocentric binarism. We need to eschew anthropological categorization, the provenance of which goes back to Aristotle’s binarism underwritten by a metaphysics of being. This eschewal of ontology must be radical, so that not even something like a paraontological attitude can be misconstrued as informing poiēsis in black. Sentient Flesh takes seriously Fred Moten’s question; What is blackness as an aspect of a life in common? A careful response is: being-in-flight-with-one-another apart from, which is what is meant by para-semiosis. This being-in-flight is not a matter of running away; that is to say, it is not at all akin to the flight of Kracauer’s bourgeois traveler, who flees from mechanized capitalist commodification in order to redeem the inherent integrity of being that has been lost to it. The para-semiotic flight of poiēsis in black is appositive; it is neither a flight from (capitalist modernity) nor toward (redemption of a lost self). The hyphenated para-, the “beside,” does not merely denote parallel movement alongside of ontology. It denotes constitutive besidedness; that is, being-in-besidedness, not as a bijective function, not being as the break-in, but in the break, to again invoke Moten. To elaborate on what I said before about para-semiosis, it denotes the dynamic of differentiation operating in multiple multiplicities of semiosis that converge without synthesis. This is what is referred to in the blues as being-at-the-crossroads. Along these lines, poiēsis in black is not circumscribed by ontology. It leaves off ontology without much more thought.
Who are the intellectual heroes that inspire your work?
Far too many to adequately list. But, to give a taste, among those who either compelled or encouraged me to think in writing—often, but not always in contradiction,—are, in alphabetic order: Adorno, Aquinas, Hannah Arendt, Aristotle, Augustine, James Baldwin, George Bataille, Walter Benjamin, Ernst Cassirer, Albert Camus, Harold Cruse, René Descartes, William Dilthey, W.E.B. Du Bois, Ralph Ellison, Nabile Farès, Frantz Fanon, Abū Hāmid al-Ghazālī, Antonio Gramsci, G.W.F. Hegel, Martin Heidegger, Chester Himes, Zora Neal Hurston, Edmund Husserl, George Jackson, al-Jāḥiẓ, C.L.R. James, Al-Jurjāni', ibn Khaldūn Immanuel Kant, Claude McKay, Karl Marx, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Fred Moten, Albert Murray, Friedrich Nietzsche, George Padmore, Charles Sanders Peirce, Walter Rodney, Jean-Paul Sartre Bobby Seal, ibn Sīnā, Hortense Spillers, Sylvia Wynter, Giambattista Vico.
In what way does your book help us imagine new worlds?
To repeat my response to question 1, my chief argument in Sentient Flesh: Thinking in Disorder, Poiēsis in Black is that carefully studying the traditions of poiēsis in black will provide us with the animative materiality for bringing about a different world order. It is my hope that the book aptly demonstrates how the long tradition of radical black critique in popular forms of expression gives us material on which to model our re-imagining of the world; not merely by showing there is an alternative archive of knowledge, but that careful engagement with that archive calls for a different way of thinking.
Roberto Sirvent is Professor of Political and Social Ethics at Hope International University in Fullerton, CA, and an Affiliate Scholar at Yale University’s Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics, where he directs the Race, Bioethics, and Public Health Project. He is co-author, with fellow BAR contributor Danny Haiphong, of the book, American Exceptionalism and American Innocence: A People’s History of Fake News—From the Revolutionary War to the War on Terror.
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