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All Black Everything

You could build a world out of need or you could hold
everything black and see.
—Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric

I will take as axiomatic the following premise, expressed in the editorial to the current issue: “It is evident that #BlackLivesMatter and the organizations that coalesce the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL) represent the most important and promising developments in the theory and practice of abolition.” Important and promising to this conjuncture, to be sure, as the eupraxia of black millennials refashions the linkage between the singular claim for freedom—the slave’s cause—and the whole range of leftist efforts for dignity, justice, and equality. But this is also true within a larger, structural view, since the longue durée of black strivings in this twilight civilization, which continually give rise to the collective aspirations of black activists in any given moment, encompass and inflect the whole range of leftist efforts—from the reformist to the revolutionary—on a global scale. To my mind, abolition, as it has been unevenly developed within the internationalist black radical tradition over several centuries now, “is the interminable radicalization of every radical movement,” most especially its own. It is that which radicalizes all others because it radicalizes itself as its most essential activity. The slave’s cause is the cause of another world in and on the ruins of this one, in the end of its ends.

The discourse of black lives distinguishes mattering and movement from any reductive concepts of legal right or standing, even if it remains entangled with and against the violent dynamics of lawmaking and law enforcement. One crucial aspect of the abolitionist imagination highlighted by this discourse on that score involves resistance to the aestheticization of politics and advocacy of a renewed politicization of aesthetics, including myriad representations of blackness in art, entertainment, and news media. If, as the editors suggest, the mass media “has hostilely presented M4BL in general and BLM in particular in ways that simplify its ideas, downplay its organizational capacity, shade over its intersectional potency, and demonize the young Black bodies whose availability to unaccountable state violence is the oldest and most consistent American reality since the European invasion,” that simplification, shading, and demonization has been contested by the independent generation of a vast digital image archive, a prolific online social-media commentary, and a rich analog protest culture involving political signage, graffiti, fashion, and dance, among other things. All of which is, of course, shaped by the diverse theoretical formulations drawn from and contributed to the interdisciplinary field of black studies, most notably regarding currents of black feminist and queer theory; all of which is, of course, shaped by the diverse philosophies, practical wisdom, and good sense characteristic of black thought in the most general sense.

Black art and black artists have been critical to this development from the beginning. It is not insignificant that one of the founders of BLM, Patrisse Cullors, is a practicing artist, and that BLM has an Art + Culture director, Tanya Lucia Bernard. The art world has, as a result, witnessed a fairly steady stream of initiatives in recent years related to the movement for black lives, exploring its many dimensions and situating it within the broadest historical, geopolitical, and even spatiotemporal contexts. We can note events spanning, for instance, from Erin Christovale and Amir George’s Black Radical Imagination film and video series at REDCAT in Los Angeles, to Simone Leigh’s Black Women Artists for Black Lives Matter (BWA for BLM) launch at the New Museum in New York. But the present engagement is not only of urgent topical interest. It also revisits deeply entrenched questions about aesthetics and art history, the asymmetrical ways and means of artistic production, the contradictory role of financial backers and institutional brokers, the political economy of the culture industry, and the perennially troubled ethical vocation of the artist. These questions condense with great force at the point where blackness, blacks, and the color black come into focus, whether black people are agent, object, or audience of the work. It is hoped that the comments below might facilitate a thought and practice of art and activism, their mutual organization or disorganization, as they traffic between the material and symbolic terms of blackness whose spacetime presents itself in paradoxical display.

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