Skip to content
Mode: Light
Missing alternative text
Simone White

Simone White is the author of Of Being Dispersed (Futurepoem Books, 2016), Unrest (Ugly Duckling Presse/Dossier Series, 2013), House Envy of All the World (Factory School/Heretical Texts, 2010) and the collaborative poem/painting chapbook Dolly, with Kim Thomas (Q Avenue Press, 2008). Dear Angel of Death, a book of criticism and poems, will be published by Ugly Duckling Presse in 2017. Simone is a Cave Canem fellow and is the recipient of a 2017 Whiting Award for Poetry. She is Program Director at The Poetry Project and Visiting Assistant Professor of Literary Studies at The New School, Eugene Lang College. She lives in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn.

from Dear Angel of Death Fold Crease Wrinkle

What is power? What is intimacy? How do we know this at all? How to communicate it? And where or when are these questions, and their relation, posed with greater force—political force, psychic force, historical force—than within the precinct of the New World slave estate, and within the time of New World slavery? […] If the intimacy of power suggests the sheer difficulty of difference, the trouble endemic to determining where the white imagination ends and the black imagination begins, then the power of intimacy suggests, with no less tenacity and no less significance, that our grand involvement across the color line is structured like the figure of an envelope, folds folded within folds: a black letter law whose message is obscured, enveloped, turned about, reversed. Here a structure of violence is inscribed problematically in narrative, an inscription that can only struggle and fail to be something other than a writing-off, or a writing-over. [1]

I have proposed the image of a fold, sometimes substituting ‘crease’ or ‘wrinkle,’ to describe an aesthetic practice of desire that is what blackness is, and I have proposed this as an alternative to the image of blackness as a sound, an archive of sound. I’m willing to take it for granted that folding and the idea of folding is elemental in language intending to describe spaces that are brought into contact with other spaces (“rubbing”), and natural also to languages of intimacy and of eros. That is, the way folding is in the air is kind of generic – at least not proprietary – and it may be that I am more interested in the word and action in its ordinary (as opposed to philosophical) sense, but there is a dialogue of the fold specific to the question of how blackness works as a historical relation.

Jared Sexton, in his impassioned essay “The Social Life of Social Death: On Afro-Pessimism and Black Optimism,” quoted above, ends up thinking the fold (echoing deep out of Du Bois and probably accidentally crossing over Baraka’s encounter with Du Bois’ “grandest work,” Black Reconstruction—or not, or, hiding a citation to that work in Benjaminian style, as I have said before, in the orthodox philosophical style, making a claim to originality, which sticks in my craw) as “our grand involvement across the color line … structured like the figure of an envelope, folds folded within folds” (30). I am babylike in my reading practice in that I can still be startled by unfamiliar or sudden noises; I startle at the notion of the fold as an image of “our grand involvement across the color line.” Grand? What is grand here? Does Sexton mean this word to indicate the temporal scope of “our involvement” or its volume, the large space it occupies in the whole of things? Or, having a manner that is self-consciously fancy and ultimately delusional about the intimacy of the intimacy? For, if “involvement across the color line” is a special or specific form of an intimate relation of power, Sexton’s statements imply an understanding of the space of racial order as genuinely double-sided (in spite of his own questions about “an untenably strict delimitation of inside and out” that comes about throug faulty understanding of “interdiction” and “transgression” (Moten’s terms) [Sexton 9]). The crux of the color-line relation is the relation of positions that are genuinely different from each other. Black and white difference is real and reified by Sexton’s folding, whose operation moves the different together in language (“in narrative”) in such a way that they lay atop one another, cover one another, cancel one another (“obscured, enveloped, turned about, reversed”). The unfunny agony of the intimate power relation is the impossibility of being as one –even as the different depend upon one another to differentiate themselves as racialized subjects.

Sexton and Moten are in in dialogue about, let’s not forget,—I really want to say this right—the question of whether black life needs a (its own or specific) “philosophy of life” in order to fully describe blackness as that modern form of life essentially “associated with a certain sense of decay” (I would add a sense of foreboding), which they undertake to study, most notably, in the work of Franz Fanon—work developed more recently in the U.S. case by Saidiya Hartman, Sexton himself, Nahum Dimitri Chandler and Frank Wilderson III, among others. These theorists end up contributing to the elaboration of general philosophical principles about the ways in which persons live as objects (or, depending on who you are reading, how certain categories of person outlive historical objecthood), but they do so with the specific understanding that the “case of blackness” /“positionality” of black people emerges under slavery; that is, there is agreement about the fact that we are dealing with a form of life that does not exist but for slavery, that slavery is the condition that creates the “lived experience of the black.” The critical question becomes, “What does slavery mean for the very conception of the objective pronoun ‘us’?” (30), a question Sexton’s essay gets to in conversation with Fred Moten’s 2008 essay “The Case of Blackness.”[2] How are black people to understand their relations with each other through time and space when being in the time and space of “the black” is undeniably to exist as the most wretched, degraded and abject set of beings that ever lived? (But David Walker has a sense of humor.) In the past in the present in the future what can black people themselves recognize as proper to themselves as survivors of successive plots to render blackness as living death, wretchedness and thingliness? How will we know our likeness to one another if we are no longer within the slave regime? And, if we are no longer there and no longer that (I’m not sure that Hartman accepts this, and I’m not sure whether there is a sharp line of delineation at Jubilee or, say, passage of the Civil Rights Act, for Chandler, Sexton and Wilderson), then are we us no longer? These are weirdly simple questions that precede and lead toward elaboration of “the regulatory metaphysics” of our art as representation of a philosophy of life that comes into being because of (let’s just say because) what becomes, because of slavery, the color line (Moten, “Case,” 178). The dialogue is also about, as Moten writes, the environment in which blackness acts and reacts: “the air of the thing that escapes enframing—an often unattended movement that accompanies largely unthought positions and appositions” (“Case,” 182). The space and spaces where blackness can be perceived to begin and end (in the mind), as Sexton says, are not abstract: they are defined by a succession of hostile racial regimes that aim to crush blackness out of existence.

In the context of the Moten/Sexton dialogue, which I’m declaring an internal, and therefore infolding, critique of the problem of black nothingness – what is the charge, positive or negative, of nothingness? – to speak of folding is to speak of the stakes of distributing black presence and imaginings in the world. What are the effects of that distribution worth? What is being touched by the presence of/living blacks going to mean? The language of folding thus highlights the encounter between blackness and its outside. What’s delightful about Moten’s formulation – “the air of the thing that escapes enframing” — naming the surrounds and atmosphere of blackness, is the way he remains agnostic about the delineation of a boundary; he allows the difference of outside blackness to remain faint or dimly perceived. The difference is respiratory, unnoticed. Blackness is its own place, always next to the place where place is thought to begin, whose inside is knowledge of the falseness of, the defiance of, enclosure. As in Black Reconstruction, leaving that bullshit behind.

The club, our subcenobitic thing, our block chapel, is a hard row of improvisational contact, a dispossessive intimacy of rubbing, whose mystic rehearsal is against the rules or, more precisely, is apposed to rule, and is, therefore, a concrete social logic often (mis)understood as nothing but foolishness, which is, on the other hand, exactly and absolutely what it is.[3]

The human condition that defies enclosure, yet requires togetherness, and is “against the rules” Moten suggests, is discoverable, naturally, only in metaphysical/“mystical” “rehearsal” (here comes the music), another word for practice. This condition is always (never) coming to pass, becoming, even in its concrete-ness, even given the evidentiary impact of its constitutive sociality. The covenant that makes our “thing” a thing that can be apprehended is the promise to stay together in the absurd or “foolish” space of the self that accepts itself as black, surrounds itself with blacks, a promise that is made and renewed by a self in “constant improvisational contact” with other facets of the world, organic and inorganic alike: earth and sky and the human and his air. Lingering within Moten’s meditation on black life as “our life in the folds” is a poet’s sense that the action of black life is not the action of “obscur[ing], envelop[ing], [turning about, reversing]” that Sexton imagines as the characteristic shape or event of racialized “involvement.” The rehearsal of which Fred Moten speaks is always going to find its highest expression beyond the explanatory capacity of the fundamentally juridical system of opposition and antagonism that the “the color line,” or, being to one side or another of the opposition that is the color line, implies. Even if that opposition is understood to be initiated by the basest falsehood backed up by systematic violence and partially constituted by that violence, to say the “color line” conjures, even if I think in terms of the vastness of Du Bois’ sense of the material plus the metaphysical remainder, for me, a whole series of thoughts that unhelpfully close the circuit of thinking about oneself. “At stake,” Moten writes, “is the curve, the suppleness and subtlety, not of contemplation on social life but of contemplative social life; at stake is the force of an extra-phenomenological poetics of social life” (“Nothingness,” 756). The highest expression of elementary blackness:

Chant and kōan and moan and Sprechgesang, and babble and gobbledygook, le petit nègre, the little nigger, pidgun, baby talk, bird talk, Bird’s talk, bard talk, bar talk, our locomotive bar walk and black chant, our pallet cries and whispers, our black notes and black cant, the tenor’s irruptive habitation of the vehicle, the monastic preparation of a more than three-dimensional transcript, an imaginal manuscript we touch upon the walls and one another, so we can enter into the hold we’re in, where there is no way we were or are. (757)

This litany alerts us to a key aspect of the liveliness of Moten’s work: its theory of blackness prizes nonce description, crowding together epithet character love sound, the illogic and impossibility of the human being “a slave,” only to allow for the dissipation of description’s momentary accuracy. He aligns himself with the edge of the envelope, as it were, before it is an envelope, where it is all cutting edge and pulp and air and is held and is moving. The analogy in speech is the eruption of “babble and gobbledygook”—the poetic space. You cannot really “inscribe” anything on the surface of flux. You cannot “narrate” a “structure of violence” upon it. There is no way to prove this.

It’s unclear, as yet, whether to fold, philosophically, when it comes to the black “philosophy of life” of which Sexton and others speak – most notably and searchingly for this discussion, Amiri Baraka in Black Music — can mean anything other than to involve oneself in the history of involvement as antagonism and intractable opposition, penetrating to split the ontological fields of antagonists, as Frank WIlderson has it, across the one and only color line.

Also—why do we have to talk like this in order to describe black people’s being together? Who cares what Gilles Deleuze said about folding? When I relate back to him through the Sexton-Moten matrix of men’s thinking, is that a retrograde act of criticism that strengthens the history of the ownership of all known words by thought that obsessively measures its relation to knowledge that can only be white and male? Black women can’t think from Thomas Jefferson right on out to lunch … . What is necessary in the discourse of folding? What caused me to happen upon it? This:

Why would something be folded, if it were not to be enveloped, wrapped or put into something else? It appears that here [the point at which ‘simple intuition’ reveals the final cause of the fold] the envelope acquires its ultimate or perhaps final meaning: it is no longer an envelope of coherence or cohesion, like an egg, in the ‘reciprocal envelopment’ of organic parts. Nor even a mathematical envelope of adherence or adhesion, where a fold still envelops other folds, as in the enveloping envelope that touches an infinity of curves in an infinity of points. It is an envelope of inherence or of unilateral ‘inhesion’: inclusion or inherence is the final cause of the fold, such that we move indiscernibly from the latter to the former. Between the two, a gap is opened which makes the envelope the reason for the fold: what is folded is the included, the inherent. It can be stated that what is folded is only virtual and currently exists only in an envelope, in something that envelops it (Deleuze 22).

The color line is “something” that envelops the possibility of becoming folded in black imagination (and that folding is the subject of black critical theory), a necessary and insufficient station on the path of an unfolding form of self insofar as we pass through it as a scrim of fact as we move nearer to a self-on-its-way. Yet, the color line is not of this world; the color line has no soul and cannot ever inhere in a human being. If we had been in the hold and were never held, we were never, neither, actually excluded by “the black letter of the law,” which all along wrote something like the depression of our inclusion as the color line; black subjectivity is the horrible harmony of power and intimacy; the color line is exactly the manifestation of imperial failure to constitute a subjectivity of racialized difference. That which constitutes the subject can be understood to differ from that which comes inside the person insofar as what comes inside is fundamentally organic: the being of which we speak is alive. Let us take the physical limits of the body under investigation somewhat literally when it is time for us to believe in its natural possibility, and not only when it is time to meditate on the various ways in which it has been harmed. The living body is not only a thing/object to which violence can be done. Imagine the “more than three dimensional transcript” of the system of thinking black imagination’s possibilities as a live system, soft. Imagine that the color line can never really touch anyone or anything. When we talk about folding, we attempt, I heard Mei-mei Burssenbrugge say, to bring together earth and sky. The discourse of folding is a discourse of relation that touches both the action of bringing together elements that are infinitely far apart and those that are infinitely close (inherent). When we talk about folding, we gain access to a language of betweenness with tremendous symbolic sweep, language appropriate to figuring blackness as that which is so far from the subject whose objecthood it names. When we think about folding we give primary attention to something “virtually” perceived, meta/physical notions by way of which it is becomes possible to reorganize our notions of interior and exterior (Earth/Sky/Fourfold/the stars). Do you see? Black imagination already is; blackness is a thing whose inherence is partially concealed by the horror which (presently) envelops it.

I don’t think it is the case, then, that blackness, even when we take into consideration the distinction between blackness and black subjectivity sometimes made in the developing discourse of black being,[4] can be, as Nahum Chandler proposes, “atopic in the sense that it is outside of spatiality as a given” (137). Indeed, I do not know what it would mean to locate existence outside “spatiality as a given” unless we are ultimately saying something like “the black is outside history as given,” true only in the radical and exclusively discursive sense developed by Spillers, Hartman, Wilderson, Chandler and others. The black is outside time/the black is outside space? How can this be, even if the black is recorded as outside ontology or constructed as a remnant in the language of language so that she is inconceivable in the face of her gore? Here I am, we are here together, inside this time-space together. The desire to eradicate me from the frame cannot accomplish its object completely; therefore, the total eradication from being of the black is, by definition, a total failure. The nowness I inhabit is an inherence that rebukes my concealment, the extremity of my inclusion. This is how I have come to understand Spillers’ flesh/body distinction: no you without the devastation of my body. This modern world folds us together, envelops us in the color line and the discovery of blackness as rending itself, or gap, or inherence is the discovery of the true time: that which is possible at the level of the human at any given instant. What might be or become if we give ourselves over to a theory of that space that is without history. This is very hard, both to give oneself over to the now and to theorize its instantaneous continuity.

[1] Jared Sexton, “The Social Life of Social Death: On Afro-Pessimism and Black Optimism,” Intensions 5 (Fall/Winter 2011), 29-30.

[2] Criticism 50:2 (Spring 2008), 177-218.

[3] “Blackness and Nothingness (Mysticism in the Flesh),” South Atlantic Quarterly 112:4 (Fall 2013): 737-780, 754.

[4] Fred Moten, “Blackness and Poetry,” University of California, Berkeley. Berkeley, CA, 15 Mar 2015. Mixed Blood Project Talk.

Missing alternative text