recentpopularlog in

robertogreco : messes   2

Critic and poet Fred Moten is profiled by Jesse McCarthy | Harvard Magazine
"IN 2013, a manifesto entitled The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study began making the rounds among the growing pool of nervous graduate students, harried adjuncts, un-tenured professors, and postdocs whirling through the nation’s faculty lounges. The Undercommons was published by the small anarchist press Autonomedia and made freely available for download; in practice, however, it circulated by word of mouth, copies of the PDF forwarded like samizdat literature for those in the know. On the surface, the text is an analysis of alienated academic labor at the contemporary American university. But it’s also more radical than that: it is a manual for free thinking, a defiant call to dissent within educational institutions that betray their liberal credos, filling their coffers even as they prepare students, armed with liberal arts degrees and “critical thinking” skills, to helm a social and economic order in which, “to work…is to be asked, more and more, to do without thinking, to feel without emotion, to move without friction, to adapt without question, to translate without pause, to desire without purpose, to connect without interruption.”

For those with little or no knowledge of black studies, the text’s deployment of terms like “fugitivity” and “undercommons” may seem baffling. To those in the circle, however, this lexicon of continental philosophy, remixed with a poetic and prophetic fire resembling Amiri Baraka’s, bears the signature of one of the most brilliant practitioners of black studies working today: the scholar and poet Fred Moten ’84."



"This past fall, Moten took up a new position in the department of performance studies at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, arriving from Los Angeles and a teaching appointment at the University of California at Riverside. In early September, his office was still a bare room with a single high window looking out over Broadway. He hadn’t had a chance to unpack his library, but already a small stack of books on jazz theory, performance, and quantum mechanics rested in a pile near his desk. It soon became clear, however, that he is the kind of thinker who keeps all his favorite books in his head, anyway. His Paul Laurence Dunbar is always at his fingertips, and he weaves passages from Karl Marx, Immanuel Kant, or Hortense Spillers into his conversation with equal facility.

In someone else this learnedness could come off as intimidating, but in Moten it’s just the opposite. Something about his composure, his relaxed attentiveness, the way he shakes his head with knowing laughter as he pauses over the direction he’s about to take with a question, instantly erases any stuffiness: one can imagine the exact same conversation taking place on the sidelines of a cookout. And then there’s his voice: warm, low, and propelled by a mellow cadence that breaks complex clauses into neat segments, their hushed, conspiratorial air approaching aphorism. At one point, Moten asked about my dissertation, which I confessed, sheepishly, was kind of a mess. His eyes lit up. He leaned back with a wide grin, his hands spreading out in front of him. “You know what a mess is?” He said. “In Arkansas, a mess is a unit of measure. Like of vegetables. Where my people come from folks might say: ‘You want a bushel?’ And you’ll say, ‘Nah, I want a mess.’ You know, like that great James Brown line: ‘Nobody can tell me how to use my mess.’ It’s a good thing to have. A mess is enough for a meal.”"



"One difficulty for outside readers encountering Moten’s work is that he tends to engage more with the avant-garde than with pop. It’s easy to see why the art world has embraced him: his taste gravitates toward the free-jazz end of the spectrum so strongly it’s as if he were on a mission, striving to experience all of creation at once—to play (as the title of a favorite Cecil Taylor album puts it) All the Notes. This spring, Moten is teaching a graduate course based on the works of choreographer Ralph Lemon and artist Glenn Ligon. In recent years he has collaborated with the artist Wu Tsang on installation and video art pieces, where they do things like practice the (slightly nostalgic) art of leaving voicemail messages for each other every day for two weeks without ever connecting, just riffing off snippets from each other’s notes. In another video short directed by Tsang, Moten—wearing a caftan and looking Sun Ra-ish—is filmed in “drag-frame” slow motion dancing to an a cappella rendition of the jazz standard “Girl Talk.”

By way of explanation, Moten recalls his old neighborhood. “I grew up around people who were weird. No one’s blackness was compromised by their weirdness, and by the same token,” he adds, “nobody’s weirdness was compromised by their blackness.” The current buzz (and sometimes backlash) over the cultural ascendancy of so-called black nerds, or “blerds,” allegedly incarnated by celebrities like Donald Glover, Neil deGrasse Tyson, or Issa Rae, leaves him somewhat annoyed. “In my mind I have this image of Sonny Boy Williamson wearing one of those harlequin suits he liked to wear. These dudes were strange, and I always felt that’s just essential to black culture. George Clinton is weird. Anybody that we care about, that we still pay attention to, they were weird.”

Weirdness for Moten can refer to cultural practices, but it also describes the willful idiosyncracy of his own work, which draws freely from tributaries of all kinds. In Black and Blur, the first book of his new three-volume collection, consent not to be a single being (published by Duke University Press), one finds essays on the Congolese painter Tshibumba Kanda-Matulu and C.L.R. James, François Girard’s Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould, a comparison between Trinidadian calypso and Charles Mingus records composed in response to the Little Rock Nine, David Hammon’s art installation Concerto in Black and Blue, Wittgenstein and the science fiction of Samuel Delany, a deconstruction of Theodor Adorno’s writings on music and a reconstruction of Saidiya Hartman’s arguments on violence. Sometimes the collision can happen within a single sentence: “Emily Dickinson and Harriet Jacobs, in their upper rooms, are beautiful,” he writes. “They renovate sequestration.”

Taken together, Moten’s writings feel like a Charlie Parker solo, or a Basquiat painting, in their gleeful yet deadly serious attempt to capture the profusion of ideas in flight. For him this fugitive quality is the point. We are not supposed to be satisfied with clear understanding, but instead motivated to continue improvising and imagining a utopian destination where a black cosmopolitanism—one created from below, rather than imposed from above—brings folks together.

For Moten, this flight of ideas begins in the flight of bodies: in the experience of slavery and the Middle Passage, which plays a crucial role in his thinking. “Who is more cosmopolitan than Equiano?” he asks rhetorically, citing the Igbo sailor and merchant who purchased his own freedom, joined the abolitionist movement in England, and published his famous autobiography in 1789. “People think cosmopolitanism is about having a business-class seat. The hold of the ship, among other things, produces a kind of cosmopolitanism, and it’s not just about contact with Europeans and transatlantic travel. When you put Fulani and Igbo together and they have to learn how to speak to each other, that’s also a language lab. The historical production of blackness is cosmopolitanism.”

What can one learn from the expression of people who refuse to be commodities, but also once were commodities? What does history look like, or the present, or the future, from the point of view of those who refuse the norms produced by systems of violence: who consent not to be a single being? These key concerns course through the entirety of Moten’s dazzling new trilogy, which assembles all his theoretical writings since In the Break. At a time of surging reactionary politics, ill feeling, and bad community, few thinkers seem so unburdened and unbeholden, so confident in their reading of the historical moment. Indeed, when faced with the inevitable question of the state of U.S. politics, Moten remains unfazed. “The thing I can’t stand is the Trump exceptionalism. Remember when Goldwater was embarrassing. And Reagan. And Bush. Trump is nothing new. This is what empire on the decline looks like. When each emperor is worse than the last.”

* * *

A THESIS that has often been attractive to black intellectuals (held dear, for example, by both W.E.B. Du Bois and Ralph Ellison) was that the United States without black people is too terrifying to contemplate; that all the evidence, on balance, suggests that blackness has actually been the single most humanizing—one could even say, slyly, the only “civilizing”—force in America. Moten takes strong exception. “The work of black culture was never to civilize America—it’s about the ongoing production of the alternative. At this point it’s about the preservation of the earth. To the extent that black culture has a historic mission, and I believe that it does—its mission is to uncivilize, to de-civilize, this country. Yes, this brutal structure was built on our backs; but if that was the case, it was so that when we stood up it would crumble.”

Despite these freighted words, Moten isn’t the brooding type. He’s pleased to be back in New York City, where he’ll be able to walk, instead of drive, his kids to school. He’s hopeful about new opportunities for travel, and excited to engage with local artists and poets. His wife, cultural studies scholar Laura Harris, is working on a study of the Brazilian artist Hélio Oiticica, who is currently being “re-discovered” by American artists and critics. “I circulate babylon and translate for the new times,” opens another poem in The Feel Trio, … [more]
fredmoten  2017  2013  highereducation  highered  work  labor  anarchism  race  slavery  blackstudies  dissent  radicalism  via:javierarbona  resistance  blackness  bodies  aesthetics  amiribaraka  dukeellington  adrianpiper  billieholiday  nathanielmackey  poetry  scholarship  academia  rebellion  subversion  karlmarx  marxism  hortensespillers  kant  paullaurencedunbar  attentiveness  messes  messiness  johnashbery  ralphellison  webdubois  everyday  writing  undercommons  margins  liminality  betweenness  alternative  preservation  uncivilization  decivilization  consent  empire  imperialism  body  objects  cosmopolitanism  charlieparker  basquiat  weirdness  donaldglover  neildegrassetyson  issarae  georgeclinton  tshibumbakanda-matulu  charlesmingus  samueldelany  saidiyahartman  clrjames  françoisgirard  davidhammon  héliooiticica  lauraharris  charlesolson  susanhowe  criticism  art  stefanoharney  jacquesderrida  jean-michelbasquiat  theodoradorno 
december 2017 by robertogreco
Edmund de Waal and the Strange Alchemy of Porcelain - The New York Times
"The sculptor and writer wants us to rediscover our sense of touch by working with our hands."



"Within a few minutes of my meeting Edmund de Waal, he was putting things in my hands. He handed me, for instance, a 1,000-year-old Chinese porcelain plate — the kind of object you would expect to see in a climate-controlled glass case in a museum, protected, at great expense, from clumsy, meaty, oily, inexpert hands like mine. De Waal just passed it to me as if it were nothing. To understand an object, he believes, you have to touch it.

In my fingers, the plate felt both fragile and indestructible. It was older than printed books, older than every traceable generation of my family. I could have snapped it in half or thrown it on the floor. Instead, I just stood there, probing its edges with my finger pads, weighing it in my palms, tracing the precise volume of space that it was displacing in the world. If all went well, this delicate thing would outlive us all by many more generations. My fingers felt this as they felt the plate. I was touching not only space but time.

De Waal kept handing me objects: perfect things, ruined things, priceless things, worthless things. We were standing in the room where he writes, in his studio in London, and he was pulling these specimens off a shelf near his desk. He is 51 and very tall, with short slate-gray hair and round glasses that rest on large, protrusive ears: ears that are somehow childish, ears to be grown into. He has unusually big hands, too; all the objects looked relaxed and at home in them, like young birds in the grasp of an animal handler. He passed me an imperial stem cup, many hundreds of years old, the rim of which seemed to be wilting. ‘‘It’s collapsed in on itself,’’ he said, ‘‘but look at the fineness of it.’’

He handed me a rough lump of Cherokee clay: a clod of petrified dirt, a meatball from outer space. He handed me shard after shard after shard of ancient porcelain dishes. He seemed delighted by all the ruination. ‘‘Part of the DNA of porcelain is getting messed up,’’ he said. One of the shards was a big, chunky encrustation that looked like a particularly ugly seashell. It was, de Waal said, an odd overlapping of worlds: porcelain that had been cooked too hot, so that its delicate white layers had fused, permanently, with their rough outer molds; perfection and failure welded together into something more interesting than either on its own.

De Waal is himself multiple things fused together, an odd overlapping of worlds. He is, first of all, one of the most celebrated living potters. His stark white porcelain vessels, painstakingly arranged in groups on shelves, can be found in private collections throughout Europe and North America, as well as in the permanent collections of such august institutions as the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. He is also one of the most adventurous nonfiction writers at work today. His 2010 book, ‘‘The Hare With Amber Eyes,’’ was a surprise best seller and is now being turned into a film. It is a memoir told through objects: a collection of 264 small Japanese carvings called netsuke, whimsical and intricate depictions, in ivory or wood, of hungry wolves or ripe fruit or sleeping servants or couples making love. Netsuke are roughly the size of a walnut shell. They are designed to be handled: carried in pockets, compulsively tumbled around in your fingers.

In the book, de Waal traces the history of these intricate little sculptures, which he inherited from his great-uncle Iggie, from 18th-century Japan to 19th-century Paris to Holocaust-era Vienna, where they were hidden in a mattress by the family’s maid to protect them from the Nazis. Through meticulous research, he tried to resurrect all of the many hands that have tumbled them over the centuries. The tiny netsuke become great repositories of human experience; they contain generations of Jewish aspiration, delusion, exile and loss."



"In 2009, the museum invited de Waal to contribute a major piece to its collection. He grew up visiting the museum, so he knew its porcelain collection well. He knew its loneliness, its isolation. He came up with an ingenious solution. De Waal designed a huge red aluminum ring, 120 feet in diameter, to nest inside the museum’s dome. The red ring is actually an elegant circular shelf: inside of it, all the way around, are pieces of porcelain by de Waal, large and extremely white, inspired by the museum’s collection. There are 425 of them, flashing against the red like teeth in a violent mouth. When visitors enter the museum, on their way to the better-known galleries closer to the street, their eyes are almost inevitably drawn up to this colorful ring hanging, very distantly, over the grand lobby. It’s like the hint of a scandal up in the attic, a sudden reason to make that long trip.

‘‘The White Road,’’ de Waal’s new book, performs an analogous trick. It rescues porcelain from the cultural attic — makes the subject feel vital, modern, interactive. In the book, de Waal refers to ‘‘Moby-Dick’’ several times (the whiteness of the whale, etc.), and he writes about porcelain as Melville writes about cetaceans: as one of the central elements of the universe. Porcelain is not just porcelain, it’s the essence of displacement. Touch a piece of it, and you travel through time, place, states of being, from ancient Chinese peasants harvesting clay to German alchemists suffocating in castle basements to emperors bankrupting their kingdoms in order to feed their collections. ‘‘Porzellankrankheit,’’ Germans called it — ‘‘porcelain sickness.’’ It is a delicate subject with a feverish history.

De Waal has his own special case of porcelain sickness, of course, and in ‘‘The White Road,’’ he follows it around the world. He visits primordial white hills in China, France, Germany and England. For 500 years, de Waal writes, the West had no idea how porcelain was made: People speculated that it was the crushed-up umbilical cords of fish that had been buried underground for decades. In fact, it is only clay. But it is clay of a very special kind: an extremely smooth combination of two minerals, petunse and kaolin, mined separately and mixed together in exactly the right proportions. When fired at extremely high temperatures, porcelain clay fuses into a kind of glass, hard and white but still slightly translucent. It is this paradoxical combination of qualities — hardness, softness, solidity, translucence — that has made people throughout history go so bananas.

‘‘The White Road’’ is a book of excess. It goes too far. It gets lost. It repeats itself. De Waal takes us all over the world, all over history: Jesuit priests, Spinoza, Constantinople, manhunts, self-immolation, Hitler, Cherokees, Quakers, modern Chinese street vendors selling ‘‘sixteenth-century porcelains from last week.’’ His prose style is like his pot style: He gets drunk on simplicity, on repetition. ‘‘The car turns off the new highway on to the old road and off the old road on to the old track rising between two farmers’ houses.’’ It could have been an easier book, more linear and contained. But then ‘‘Moby-Dick’’ could have been easier, too. One of de Waal’s core beliefs is that messes are interesting. There’s so much to feel inside of them."



"De Waal is an evangelist of touch. As he wrote in ‘‘The Hare With Amber Eyes’’: ‘‘Touch tells you what you need to know: it tells you about yourself.’’ As he writes in ‘‘The White Road’’: ‘‘Thinking is through the hands as well as the head.’’ Hands are the great universal human fact. Our opposable thumbs are the tools that helped launch us out of the forests and into the world we know now. Some of the earliest art is simply handprints on cave walls — a high-five across 30,000 years. Even in our postmodern, postindustrial, increasingly virtual digital world, we depend on our fingertips to decode for us, instantly, the crucial outlines of our environment: whether an object is hot or cold, whether it’s something to drink or peel or squeeze, something your teeth will be able to penetrate, a volume button or a power switch. We are still affectionate animals who greet each other with hands: handshakes, fist bumps, high-fives, hugs.

De Waal’s hands are rapturously attentive to the weight, grain, proportions and personalities of objects. For years, he says, he could remember every single pot he ever touched. In the same way that Bobby Fischer could run into someone at a tournament and say, about a game they had played 15 years earlier, ‘‘You should have moved your bishop to e7,’’ de Waal can recall exactly the way a particular vase swelled or tapered toward its rim, or if the heft of a teakettle was particularly well-balanced. Recently, he says, his memory has filled up, and old pots have started to drop out of it.

De Waal worries that modern humans are beginning to lose our fluency in touch. He thinks that we live in a world impoverished by a lack of attention to tactility. Our culture has a deeply embedded shame of the body, shame of skin, shame of ‘‘mere’’ sensation — a desire to transcend the animal coarseness of nerves, hair, blood flow. To live in clean, noble abstractions: things that we think will last. All of our digital technology, all of these portable virtual worlds, only make it easier to live in touchlessness. If you put on virtual-reality goggles, there will be plenty to look at and pretend to touch, but nothing to actually feel. But touch, de Waal insists, is fundamental to the human experience. If we can’t fully inhabit and value the world of touchable objects, de Waal told me, then we can’t fully value other human beings.

Despite our culture’s squeamishness, there is no escape from touch, and there is no escape from time, and these two facts are intimately related. All of the hands that exist … [more]
edmunddewaal  samanderson  senses  porcelain  touch  touchlessness  messes  messiness  netsuke  objects  worrybeads  fidgettools  anti-anxietydevices 
november 2015 by robertogreco

Copy this bookmark:





to read