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The Movement of Black Thought – Study Notes

by Black Study Group (London)
29 Sep 2015 • Comment (1) • Print
Posted: General Issue [10]
 

Our London based Black Study group formed in 2013 as a result of an already existing set of shared concerns with the history of black radicalism, the politics of black diasporic thought, and the production of black diasporic culture. We had been in conversation about these things in passing for a while, it was just that we decided to meet more regularly, over longer periods of time, and thought it might be a good idea to feed and water each other whilst doing so. Our aims are pretty modest: we seek to sustain our ability to meet and conduct our conversations in private, which are not always smooth or comfortable, but we feel they are necessary.

Having been in operation for nearly two years, we see the creation of the Black Studies Association and the upcoming conference, as an opportunity to publicly develop our conversations on black radicalism, politics, thought and culture. Thus, we welcome the creation of the Association, as we believe it reflects a potentially decisive conjunctural moment for the future of intellectual practice on race in the UK academy.

In the following piece (which will form the basis for the roundtable discussion we are holding at the conference), we want to flesh out some of the key terms that have been central to our collective discussion, and think about these in relation to the Black Studies Association as well as the institutional politics of race in UK universities.

There are three terms we want to focus on in this piece that have been productive in our thinking and we present them here as the basis for continued discussion: blackness, black study, Black Studies.

We understand blackness as a name given to the general antagonism, one that operates as a dialectic between racial capitalism and black radicalism, since the opening of the modern projects of racial slavery and colonialism. In other words, we understand blackness historically, as the external imposition of a racial ontology which is particular to populations racialized as black. At the same time, the internal production of racial ontologies of blackness by black diasporans have destabilized the claim that any racial category is given, or natural. Nahum Chandler has written of this double character of blackness as a fundamental problematic to any notion of categorisation because of its “paraontological” status. By this he means that any iteration of blackness involves the shattering of the basis of racial purity in all its forms, in the service of the affirmation of dehiscient non-exclusionary improvisations of collective being. The “paraontology” of blackness is the constant escape of blackness from the fixity of racial ontology that structures white supremacy.

With this in mind it seems more productive to think of blackness as the general condition, and racialised whiteness as exceptional and perverse. The modality of whiteness in its construction as the central iteration of racial capitalism is exclusionary and exploitative. It seeks to homogenise its other(s). Blackness is a way of thinking the contrary – the general, open, and heterogeneous. The most valuable resource of blackness is what Édouard Glissant calls its open and generative ocean of relationality, against the perverse particularity of whiteness. Whiteness incorporates, but only ever against blackness as its limit-case – that which can’t be white. Blackness indeed is produced through a dialectic between racial capitalism and the black radical tradition, or at least this is its front-line. Its formation is also the production of internal difference, or the relationship between the expanding interconnections of the singular experiences of colonized peoples. What the black radical tradition is, is a constant differentiation, or heterogeneity produced alongside the expansion of racial capitalism.

Black study is the modulation of the general antagonism of blackness into forms of sociality. It is the quotidian, communal manifestation of blackness as a paraontology of lived experience. Black social life, like blackness, is not singular, in that it is not simply the property of a given body, but the manifestation of collective experiences, hapiticalities, and inhabitations. Study refers to a generalized coming together in full recognition of common incompleteness. Black study is another name for the modes of social organization generated by black diasporans.

In contrast, Black Studies is a specific institutional form, which tends to rely upon the university for its operation. Historically in the U.S. the formation of Black Studies arose as a result of modes of black study placing immense pressure upon institutions. The pressure was never solely “educational” but part of a continuum of events taking place under the banner of Civil Rights-Black Power – a constellation we would call an instance of black study. Black study, in this historical juncture, would have continued if refused entry into campuses, because it preceded the campus formation and it was part of a general attempt to structurally overturn U.S. society. Thus it was a class politics also.

To the extent that our discussions have taken on any specific patterns, the questions we have tended to return to regularly have been built around the nature of the relation between these three categories. Through a sustained examination of a general, acategorical blackness as it emerges from a particular historical experience (Cedric Robinson, W.E.B. Du Bois, Hortense Spillers, C.L.R. James, Fred Moten, Paul Gilroy, Claudia Jones, Ambalavaner Sivanandan, David Roediger, Ranajit Guha, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak), we have thought about specific instances of its realization as performance, culture, collective organization amongst otherwise oppressed and exploited peoples (free jazz, soundsystem culture, Black Audio Film Collective, Southall Black Sisters), and how these relate to institutional politics of universities (to what extent is it possible to think about and teach the previous two tendencies/formations in higher education? Has this happened in the past? If so, how and what forms did it take?).

It might be a strategic error to place pressure on universities in this country to recognize Black Studies as a legitimate field, because in the current climate they are failing institutions which only seem to be capable of reproducing privilege and exceptionalism. Indeed we believe that at present UK higher education is not interested in supporting what we understand to be black study, i.e. the generative force of something that might eventually take the institutional form of Black Studies. No doubt, the paucity of representation of academics racialized as black is a pressing concern. As are the questions raised by students self-organizing to address the structural racism built in their curriculum, even memorialized in the buildings they use. Students of colour will be arriving to sign up to degrees, so it is imperative that everyday institutional violence directed at them is minimized. But these are “demands” the university, and its neoliberal managers, can – in theory – deliver on as part of a diversity agenda.

As institutions primarily concerned with governance and subsidising the creation of surplus value, universities have become highly adept at using the politics of representation for their own ends. For example, the University of East London recently offered 10 postgraduate scholarships to Syrian refugees. This charitable gesture seems to have arisen with little discussion of why they are being offered scholarships, how undertaking a Masters at UEL might relate to migrant life or what course(s) they might do at the university. We ask, why only Syrians? Why only refugees? What social structures are present for their support here? For us this smacks of a branding exercise where the university fulfils a corporate agenda of “widening participation” – by engineering and then fulfilling a demand that was not even made, with no consideration of the generalized politics of racism, neocolonialism and austerity. As such it’s an example of the institution as universalised whiteness appropriating the particularity of black suffering for their own advantage – of contemporary racial capitalism in its “post-racial” garb.

Could Black Studies function in UK higher education right now without falling prey to such mechanisms and techniques? We might want to consider what black study might look like without the need for institutional expression. On what basis might we develop a model of black study, if we had free reign to do so? Are organizational models or prototypes even what we need right now? In any case, here is what resulted from our reveries:

Collective self-organization. What we collectively self-organize around, and how long for is determined by and for the group. It might be to make music with whatever is at hand and to share it amongst friends. It could be to come up with a plan to help people keep their homes. Or we could be talking about a reading group. As for duration, the collective might last twenty years and grow in numbers. It might last one night and call itself to a halt, but it’s the getting together, not endurance, that is the critical thing.

Defense of collective self-organization. Self-organization need only appear to the outside world as soon as its self-generated activity – the reason for collectivity – shows up in civil society. Once this happens, defense becomes critical. Defense need not mean survival, but simply a refusal to accept that the very collectivity of the group be unable to flourish.

Repudiation of forms of recognized knowledge production. Black Studies, because of its institutional orientation, naturally has to involve itself in the forms of knowledge production that universities reify. We already know what it’s like to be on the wrong side of canons and disciplines. The requirements as they are required of us might be the end of thinking before it even begins. Black study means that a group does not need to involve itself in anything other than the expression of its internally determined function. Again it might be shooting a video on a hand-held phone, selling bbq from your front garden, or organizing a vigil after another death in police custody.

Thought. By extension, the notion of “thought” in the course of black study is not limited to atomised scholarly labor. Thought in this setting is not the product of a single mind, but the organic expression of the collective. What black study is about, if anything, is the (re)production, sustenance and defense of a general intellectuality. This is not to refuse writing but to refuse research outputs. Let’s reconsider the performative labor of academia as part of the performative labor of intellectualism. Who wants to work hard to write a book alone? Or who wants to talk about how hard they work to write a book alone? In place of something like impact we would prefer to talk about more generalized collective operations, that find their expression in given moments through production of texts, filming, recording, dancing, organizing, stealing.

Pleasure. There is nothing wrong with enjoyment, of taking care of each other’s needs and taking pleasure in our collective dereliction. If we are told we need to be corrected, revel in the incorrectness, of being bent, queer, overweight, drunk, high, of spending too much when we have too little, of not working hard enough to lift ourselves up.

We recognize that much of what we have set out above sounds like a simple reproduction of Hardt and Negri’s multitude because the implication is that black study is already taking place, everywhere outside the academy. But we would also say that the other term of this is Black Studies as an institutional form seeking more inclusion and representation in the failing university as it is. So, without falling back on the first position, we seek models of black study that have already taken place, which we might want Black Studies to become:

The Brazilian artist Hélio Oiticica found black study taking place in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro in the form of Samba during the early 1960s. Oiticica’s entry into black study was by way of Samba classes where he found what Laura Harris calls the “aesthetic sociality of blackness”. When Oiticica was asked to exhibit at the National Gallery he filled the space with some minimal decorations of the favela – corrugated iron etc. On the opening night he planned to take his Samba class to the gallery where they would hold a session in the space. The gallery organizers freaked out at people from the favela coming to the gallery and refused to let them in. Instead Oiticica and his group held the class in the grounds outside the museum, where eventually so many people joined them that it became difficult to enter the gallery, and besides the art was taking place outside. This serves as a parable with regard to black study and the exclusionary university. The argument seems to be now: ‘Well, we have one respected black academic. Now that we have a foothold we can get two to be accepted’. What Oiticica does instead, is to make apparent the exclusionary function of the institution, whilst at the same time turning it inside out – from fort to surround, as conceived by Stefano Harney and Fred Moten – opening it whilst showing its paucity. Black Studies in the university – now granting access whilst what is being granted access to is rapidly being eroded – should be constructed always with an eye to performing this sort of opening out.

Secondly, grime. Despite an attempt by the Metropolitan Police to effectively render grime music illegal (through the use of Form 696) and increasing media hysteria which could not see those who made or listened to this music as anything other than an affected and affectable violent criminal class, grime persisted and flourished during the early 2000s in London. This was not because those within the scene sought to disprove any assumptions made about them, but instead through an active increase in the aesthetic antagonism and organizational fugitivity which shaped the scene. We could think of this black study as a war of transmission, whereby the attempt to remove grime from clubs and public spaces only fuelled the potency of its use of pirate radio technology to broadcast the sound across the city. The types of mobility, competition, tension, collectivity, and violence required to sustain this scene/activity, provide for us not so much a group model which is repeatable, but a mode of study whose mineral interior we believe is reproducible.

Some might argue that the examples of black study we have mapped out are dependent upon a romantic ideal of black social life. We would not disagree with such a criticism, but then we wouldn’t see it as a criticism anyway. When we turn to instances of black study they overwhelmingly tend to be in terms of everyday culture, music, film, art. This is not to say that we are not invested in issues of housing, health or policing, or that we draw a distinction between the former (“soft”) and the latter (“hard”) aspects of society. Rather we exhibit a tendency towards what some would call black aesthetics as they relate to the expression of the collective body in ways that are not reducible to the (rational) racial ontology of anti-racism. We are interested in black study as it re-imagines, experiments with, creates new forms of sociality, affect, knowledge, and operates as a subjective mode of antagonism always escaping racial capitalism. This to us seems an imperative given the inability of current black praxis to break out of the language, forms and logics of neoliberalism.

Having fleshed out our thought experiment on black study, we’d like to think ahead to our roundtable and pose some questions for the Black Studies Association, and anyone else who’d like to join the discussion whether at the conference or online:

1 – How do we study the black radical tradition in the UK without monumentalising it? What is at stake in the formation of a disciplinary canon?

2 – Does the so-called US-UK “special relationship” reduce black thought to the nation-state? How do we conceive of black study as transnational? Is there an essential notion of black thought or one that has been globally produced and articulated with other struggles and resistances (feminist, trans, queer, class, indigenous, subaltern, peasant)?

3 – Should the Black Studies Association be closer to a collective organisation that creates an “infrastructure” for black study? Does it need to include within its remit creating projects, events and spaces for reading, debate, intervention, as well in terms of publishing and a ‘communication network’ that enables forms of disseminating black work that is outside the logic of corporate control?

Finally, we would like to stress that all we have written here is done so out of a certain spirit. Firstly it is a product of the bonds that hold us as a group together. More importantly it is issued out of the hope for future friendship amongst those who share our commitments to the historical force of the black radical tradition, even if they conceive of it differently. We’d like to think that most of those we have hung out with and will hang out with in the future, share our belief that the current abomination which passes for a world is fucking with us all. Our only intention is to try to alleviate some of what ails us so that when it hits you you feel no pain.

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Black Study Group (London): Simon Barber, Dhanveer Brar, Victor Manuel Cruz, Ciarán Finlayson, Sam Fisher, Lucie Mercier, Fumi Okiji, Ashwani Sharma
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