Fred Moten and Saidiya Hartman sit down to talk about the temporal and traditional in the age of refusal – of movement, of citizenship. They offer up a different way of thinking, a pathway to another understanding of community as well as the possibility of harnessing fugitivity as a creative empowering strategy*.
Saidiya Hartman: One of the places I think about the outside is in this constitutive paradox. Frederick Douglass talks about the thought in deed or the thought in song and a philosophy of abolition that’s made inside the circle of slavery. He says, “one is only able to give an account of it from the outside.” One way of thinking about this idea is in temporal relations, which I think is wrong because then the outside comes after the inside. Rather, I think the tradition is to produce a thought of the outside while in the inside. Yes, the enclosure is brutal… but the practice is always about finding a way to produce an outside within that space. It seems to me that a history of black thought (one that’s not the thought of canonical thinkers) the thought of most folks is really devoted to this labour of trying to produce an outside, trying to create an opening, which is often only discernible belatedly and it’s discernible as it becomes marked as crime or as it’s subject to a new form of enclosure that is the response to a certain kind of making/happening. Given the kind of unceasing onslaught of militarised violence directed against a civilian population, I’ve been thinking a lot about the space of the hold and what happens there. For me, part of the paradox is that the ordinary is constituted by stuff that is so terrible and impossible to bear and yet in that context, people make things happen, they continue to act/ produce. I want to keep those two things in tension; both the terror and the opening.
Fred Moten: It reminds me of an essay by Foucault on Maurice Blanchot called The Thought of the Outside. One way to think about it is the reason why we feel it necessary to constantly, I don’t want to say go back to the hold, but the reason we feel it necessary to renew our consciousness of being in the hold, so to speak, is because maybe there’s a way in which the thought of the outside can only occur from the inside. On one hand we speak in reverence of a tradition of the thought of the outside or the tradition of those able to be in two places at one time. I always thought that was the real importance and beauty of Harriet Ann Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave, which is about constantly trying to figure out how to be in two places at the same time, under absolute duress, often in both places. But there is a sense in which the constant renewal of the terms and conditions of that inside/outside opposition becomes debilitating in many ways in and of themselves.
It reminds me, I’m from small town in Arkansas called Kingswood that only has 300 people. My aunts lived in another town that wasn’t really a town, called New Edinburg, which the people in Kingswood would call “the country”. Then there were people who lived so deep in the woods that we referred to them as “living out from” New Edinburg. So, I’ve been trying to think of living out from the outside, or out, so to speak, of that inside/outside opposition. It’s hard to not think of yourself in some kind of infinity loop or some kind of Yayoi Kusama infinity room, but when I think of the outdoors, the black outside, I think of it as this thing which is to be out from the outside. Or what are the conditions that would make such a thought possible, and also necessary, so a meta out; an ec ec; extra ecclesiastical.
The thing that was in my mind for the last few weeks before coming back here, was that when I lived here before, as a kid, I could just always hear somebody running. I just felt like being in those instances of being out in the woods. That for me is where I was closest to the runaway. So, I can’t separate the outside from this constant necessity and activity of running away, of flight. This means that the outside is always bringing those constraints with it. And it’s impossible not to think about those things now. It’s always impossible to not think about those things, but for some reason it just seems like there are more people getting shot these days. It’s not actually true, but it just feels like it is… so…
SH: One of things I thought was interesting from this “out-from”, even in this space what you’re already countering is that threat of enclosure/captivity. When you describe the “out-from”, there is a lovely book on marronage and it talks about petit marronage and marronage on the border, people who were close enough to the plantation to still be caught, who found a way to live in the trees but couldn’t leave any marks of human habitation. To me that’s a kind of an out-from. So, you escaped a certain kind of enclosure but that threat… it’s a certain dance… you’ve made this other mode of dwelling often inside the trunk of trees but you’re not in a relationship with the land via farming, the land isn’t displaying any signs of cultivation. What I wrestle with is the threat, the terror, the violence of enclosure and the vulnerability, the precarity of these makings. And we continue to make and create because that’s all we can do. There’s a kind of opening but there’s the structural container—the forces that are making living hard, impossible. And that those define so many of the circumstances in which these experiments and living unfold.
FM: Somehow, I haven’t been able to make myself clear when it comes to certain things but I feel like it’s probably not my fault. I don’t know that it’s possible to be clear when it comes to these kinds of things, but let’s say… and I get scared about saying certain kinds of stuff because I feel like sometimes it could seem really callous and I don’t mean… I don’t want to seem that way because it’s not that I don’t feel, or that I don’t care. But let’s talk about it in terms of what it means to live in a way that would not reveal, not show, no signs of human habitation. Obviously there’s a field, a space, a constraint, a container, a bounded-space because every time you were saying unbounded, I was thinking, is that right? Noam Chomsky used to make this really interesting distinction –and I don’t think I really fully understood it – between that which is bounded but infinite, and that which is unbounded but finite. So, if it’s unbounded, it’s still finite and there’s a quite specific and often quite brutal finitude that structures whatever is going on within the general; if we can speak of what it is to be within the general framework of the unbounded… there’s never… I mean, the whole point about escape is that it’s an activity. It’s not an achievement. You don’t ever get escaped. Like, “I escaped!” No! And what that means is that what you’re escaping from is always after you. It’s always on you.
What’s interesting to me – but its hard to think or talk about – is that we can recognize that absolute horror, the unspeakable incalculable terror and horror that accompanies the necessity of not leaving a trace of human inhabitation. And then there’s the whole question of, what would a life be that wasn’t interested in leaving a trace of human habitation? So fuck the human, human-inhabitation!
I think of a phrase I often use – and I always think of it in relation to Fannie Lou Hamer, because it’s just me giving a theoretical spin on a formulation she made in practice: to refuse that which has been refused to you. And that’s what I’m interested in. And that doesn’t mean that what’s at stake is some kind of blind, happy, celebratory attitude toward all the beautiful stuff that we’ve made under constraint. I love all the beautiful stuff we’ve made under constraint but I’m pretty sure I would love all the beautiful stuff we’d make out from under constraint better. But there’s no way to get to that, except through this. We can’t go around this. We gotta fight through this. But, by the same token, anybody who thinks they can come even close to understanding how terrible the terror has been without understanding how beautiful the beauty has been against the grain of that terror, is wrong. There is no calculus of the terror that can make a proper calculation without reference to that which resists it. It’s just not possible. So this is the key thing to me.
SH: I agree. When I think about these forms of living like petit marronage and how they come to an end and not even an absolute end because new practices emerge and there have always been an endless number of beautiful models of living otherwise. But that encounter: defeat and then we must reemerge again. So it’s not like you’re insufficiently accounting for the terror but I think that maybe we’re at this kind of shift. Like my own thinking right now is that we just have to be involved in that unceasing labour, producing these new experiments in living even as defeat continues to be the outcome… but we’re not stopped by that defeat. To escape isn’t finite. And I understand my “now” always in relationship to all these other “nows”. And often what has met those kind of beautiful experiments is certain forms of defeat, by the state, by the police, by reforming agents. It doesn’t mean that they kill or quash or can stop or snuff out that process but that’s also part of the field too.
FM: I remember when you and Frank B Wilderson had that interview on “The Position of the Unthought” and you were messing with Fredric Jameson. There’s a romanticism that goes with detachment around this notion of the narrative of defeat, which he thinks specifically in relation to the league of revolutionary black workers… and it’s an insufficient account, it’s problematic. Part of the problem is what if it turns out that the kinds of terror, the particular kind of history that we’re trying to work through – talking about you as historical figure and me as profoundly ahistorical figure. It’s like, it’s not even something you can really talk about within a calculus of victory and defeat.
Defeat is a word that seems applicable in many ways. And then you know there’s a whole specific black Christian discourse on victory that one wants to appeal to every once in a while… but it just might be that part of the problem is that the concepts we have been given in order to try and think and talk about this stuff we try and talk about, just don’t work. They’re inadequate, inoperative. And it might even be the case that the concept itself is an inadequate mental construct or that conceptualism itself is an inadequate intellectual disposition. It’s like we’re working on some other kind of stuff. I feel this reading your work all the time. You’re saying these things, using a given language but I know you’re talking about something else, in some other language. And so you have to work through that, it’s a difficult thing and I’m gonna just keep going. And I see black studies now as reaching a kind of crisis in a certain way; we just can’t keep going on like this. The conceptual apparatuses at our disposal are inadequate. And we’re just kind of spinning our wheels in a lot of ways, pushing up against the same hard rock so to speak. And it doesn’t mean that what’s needed is a new kind of theoretical disposition. It’s really a new set of kind of moral and ethical dispositions about how we treat one another and how we talk to one another. And it goes against the grain of any kind of a sense of somebody being able to achieve an adequate theoretical perspective on things by themselves. It’s a great relief to realise that I don’t have to do it by myself anyway. So whatever is inadequate about what I’m doing; luckily you’re doing something. It’s just not a one-person job.
SH: I agree with you, we could say that’s an inadequacy or incommensurability between an available critical vocab and that which we’re trying to describe. You might think about this with W. E. B. Du Bois and the general strike. What he’s trying to describe is so vast and this is like okay, maybe if I call it this, it can bring some stuff into the view about how this is a politics of refusal against capitalism and the conditions of work, even as it is so much more than that. So, I agree with you about that inadequacy. I feel like I’m involved in a much more humble labour. I think I’m trying to describe belatedly, the things people have fought and have done and I’m just attending to them. So it’s this labour of regard, it is tripped up or struggling with how to illuminate that and it’s not that it isn’t a resource we work with and in some way know, but it’s an intimate labour in regard to what others have done and have thought, so, I’m a describer. But Fred, I don’t know if you want to talk about the poetry, your writing practice, which is so rich and varied and multiple…
FM: I got to the point where, I mean, there’s so much overlap between the two things and I’ve never felt embarrassed about being interested in theory. I never was all that invested in being called a theoretician either. I was just somebody who was interested in theory and in that kind of general sense of people seeing, thinking about stuff and maybe certain movements of abstraction from what one sees and feels. I was always happy to be interested in doing that kind of stuff and I was also always happy to be interested in poetry and I never thought of these two things as being so utterly separate. The older I get, the more impossible it is to keep them separate but I do think, they both constitute, in the end, two different forms of description but it’s the same work.
One way to think about it is people have different approaches to things, and a lot of it is just kind of temperament. The whole time I’m thinking of that classic old time song, “Keep on the Sunny Side”. I love that song and the way I do my work is I’m always looking at the sunny side. The peculiar nature of the sunny side in regard to black social lives is that it’s dark, but I’m still looking for the sunny side. But I know there are other people who don’t need to look for the sunny side. They’re more like midnight folks or 3am folks. Like Bobby “Blue” Bland, where every blues song happens at three in the morning? My mom used to say her arthritis always hurts most at 3am. Luckily, everybody doesn’t have to do the same thing. And what sad ethical condition are we in when it seems like everybody has to do the same thing? Why, now, does everybody have to do the same thing? All this writing, the state of this or that discipline, all carry an unspoken assumption that all are doing the same thing and everybody not doing the thing that I’m saying, is wrong. No! That’s just stupid, ridiculous. So there’s a bunch of different ways, attitudes, dispositions that are necessary to try to provide something that would approach an adequate description of who, what we are and who, what we might be.
SH: I’ll say two things, and it’s a kind of a gross simplification, but in certain liberal storeographies of slavery it ends with a great legal act of emancipation. And writing scenes and writing my dissertation, one was about the non-event of emancipation because of the way in which these emergent modalities of servitude took place within a discourse of freedom, rights, liberty. I guess for me there was something more rotten at the core, which is about the imposition of a certain regime of the subject that was so fundamentally defined by property, and that being as good as it gets. So, I think it was both the impossibility of the achievement of those things that define a kind of liberal citizen subject in the West, the free being excluded from that. But then what are the kind of constituents of that subject to begin with and is that something that one wants to sign onto anyway? So many of the articulations of freedom, so much of the kind of practices of the ex-slave or the freed, articulated kind of another imagination of freedom altogether. So there’s the imposition of a certain regime of the subject and a certain conception of the domestic is crucial to the production of that subject.
FM: I feel this general sense of having come to an impasse in a certain kind of way is interesting. It depends on how you think about it. So, let’s say that within a field that is bounded on the one hand by incompatible predications of the free, and on the other hand the burdened individuation (to use Saidiya’s terms). That within this structure that is bounded so to speak by those terms, there’s only so much you can do theoretically but that doesn’t mean that you stop trying to come up with things. Because the other notion of predication that has been in the back of my mind the last couple months is this predication that Nate Mackey had as he talks about predications “rickety spin”. I guess I’ve just begun to think what one might be able to do against the grain; of an incompatibility of a set of imposed predications that is continually spinning out, in however rickety, raggedy way, an endless series of predications.
There was a certain moment in which the critique of authenticity, let’s say in black studies or whatever, became so puritanical, that any sentence of the type: “blackness is x”, was almost against the law, against the rules of the people and somebody would come get you… Touré or somebody. But, I’m interested in something like an endless proliferation of sentences of the type: blackness is x. Recognizing that those sentences might come from anywhere and might be animated by any number of possible motivations. But that necessity of predication, which could even be said to take the form of a certain kind of a meditative, worshipful kind of form, that’s important. And I think it’s one of those things in terms of describing what people have felt and what they’ve done. That’s one of the things that people have done.
By the same token, there is this other slightly parallel track to predication, which may be just naming or nominalisation of these things as kind of connected but not exactly the same thing. And these are important cultural, aesthetic and intellectual activities that are crucial to anything; like what one might call a kind of… whatever you want to call it: A resistance. Fugitivity. War. Whatever. These are important activities to be engaged in because then it gives us a chance to think and talk. It gives us a chance to be together, as we meditate with one another on these questions. Hopefully with some friends, food, wine, kids running around. This is totally important. And from my perspective, these are activities that must be done, to use the old Cornel West phrase, “outside of the normative gaze of the white man”. It’s just that at a certain point, you can’t be worried all the time about what he says or thinks. For some reason I think this is particularly difficult for academics because we are addicted to being graded and they do the grading, or let’s just say the degrading.
What I’m trying to say is that sense of… well, is this the right term? That’s a debilitating question but is this a term that we can start… that can get us talking about something? Is this a term that can help structure a certain kind of fellowship amongst us? That’s a different kind of question.
* This is the edited transcript of a conversation that took place in 2016, part of a series titled “Black Outdoors: Humanities Futures After Property and Possession”.
This and other stories and maps are available in the new issue of the Chronic, On Circulations And The African Imagination Of A Borderless World, which maps the African imagination of a borderless world: non-universal universalisms, the right to opacity, refusing that which has been refused to you, and “keeping it moving”.