Hello. I haven’t been meeting my writing goals for the semester. A past version of myself would have taken this as an excuse to kick myself, but recently, I’ve been feeling different. Not necessarily good, or bad. Not detached, not removed. Yet, away. It’s weird and hard to explain. It’s a good feeling, insofar that it’s different. I haven’t had much time to write to you, and that has been somewhat disheartening, but I have been busy taking care of myself, getting things in order, fleshing out my ideas, seeking out resources on how to live and be well in this body of mine. The rhetoric I have begun to critically engage could to some seem quite alarming – existentialism, the philosophy of madness, the ethics of suicide – but in many ways, it has been a long road to this point of clarity in my life. As I grow older, I am becoming aware of the great knots in my life. The road to wellness, to self-acceptance, is circuitous and winding; it does not cross, does not undo, the knots, so much as make us aware of their presence, of the means by which they constitute life’s journey. I cannot undo the past, nor can I manipulate it. All that is in my power is to come to terms with what is and cannot be, with I have done, and what has been done to me.
[A truncated version of this post was presented at the “Music Video as Form” panel for the Modernist Panel, here at my home institution of Yale University.]
Today I’m going to be talking about space and narrative in music videos. The videos I will be discussing engage space as a site of emotional discourse through the juxtaposition of audio and visual information, fixed perspective and viewerly participation. The goal is not outline trends in the construction of recent music videos, nor is it to signal the general architecture of alternative music’s relationship to the music video form – the selected pieces function nevertheless as way for understanding the narrative role of spatial representation as an element which the music video form freely manipulates in order to invoke a particular affective response in the viewer.
I’ll begin with, perhaps, my favorite music video. The construction of space in the music video for Blood Orange’s song “Champagne Coast” incorporates a kind of arbitrary dimensionality made apparent by the scripted and guided experience of the camera’s motion. Everything about the piece screams retro aesthetics; from its music constructed of recycled short audio loops stitched together by the nostalgic picking of electric guitar, to the presentation of three-dimensional space through the collage and décollage of two-dimensional images, to the flattened, looping dancers, their bodies distorted by the retrofitted, pixelated resolution, even the occasional visual glitching of the video’s “footage,” Halley Wollens’ video for “Champagne Coast” is designed to induce a kind of nostalgia in almost every aspect of its production, including the means by which space itself becomes a vector. Nostalgia as I’m using it here is not necessarily related to individual memory, as in, “the video makes us nostalgic because we can personally REMEMBER a time when its aesthetics were the norm.” Nostalgia in the sense of “Champagne Coast” incorporates the cultural experience of shared historical past, and the means by which that past is both sonically and visually constructed. The feeling of nostalgia is reproductive, for it encourages a kind of memory beyond the limitations of the individual – who, at least for me, can only vaguely remember, if at all, the reminisced past – without necessarily being bound to that time. Nostalgia is always temporally mimetic, being induced only by the distance between the past and the present, and by something new which invokes and harkens back to past events. As genres, vaporwave and chillwave function to induce this feeling of nostalgia primarily from a fixed point of the contemporary era – while they remind us of the past, it is their presentness which makes them so meaningful; they have a certain poetics of anachronism to them. Returning to “Champagne Coast,” the audiovisual spectacle of a collapsed-albeit-deep experience invokes the past through imitating the limited graphical capabilities of 80s and 90s computers, but also through the fixed motion of the camera.
Figure 1: “Champagne Coast” video by Halley Wollens
When I look at “Champagne Coast,” I remember old arcade games. Granted, I came into individual consciousness towards the end of the arcade moment, but I can still remember at bowling alleys or at game centers the rail shooter, a vestige of that limited late-20th century computing power, which constructed the player’s vantage through a set path of motion. The user does not have a fixed positionality – they are not simply looking at one particular object from varying distances – but their positionality is structured by a stable motion through space. The rail shooter is an excellent example of procedurally generated space, for all that can be known, and all that is ever possibly attainable, is directly within the viewer’s vision. What is unattainable ceases to exist, for it can never be reached or regained. “Champagne Coast” uses this primarily through its mélange of 2-D and 3-D visuals – similar to early rail shooters – as well as the means by which perspective is limited by the set motion of the camera. The dimensions of the many rooms are relatedly constructed and redone by the motion of the camera through space and its response to the changes in the song’s lyrical content, tempo and rhythm. Rail shooters became much rarer towards the end of the 1990s as first-person shooters with free mobility became more and more marketable, and the limited graphic power of arcade video game consoles were overpowered by increasingly powerful and affordable home console technologies. It’s motion however, and the cinematic quality of its almost plot-driven montage, nevertheless contribute to the spatial practice of nostalgia in “Champagne Coast,” the video itself encouraging us to think back to a distant albeit ever-present past.
Film scholar Stephen Heath would describe the representation of multidimensional space through the depiction of narrative motion in “Champagne Coast” as an example of his notion of “narrative space.” For Heath, early film space was constructed primarily through what he calls the “tableauesque,” or a fixed-camera frontal perspective similar to what we’d see when watching theatre. Early film’s replication and emulation of theatre practices is also signaled by the early screening assemblages of the silent film and accompanying live music from the pit orchestra (Heath 73). The two distinct pieces – the audio and the visual – create an asynchronous unit which ultimately places the viewer outside of the events. They are not so much as a spectator within the film’s narrative itself, but on the very fringes of detection or interaction; they are not a bystander so much as a ghost. “Champagne Coast” invokes that ghostly feeling not only through its ability to invoke memory, but because the motion of the rails and the ever-distance of the characters creates the illusion of inaction; we are in the space, but do not contribute to its construction. We are in the narrative, but cannot act upon it.
The video “Two Weeks” by FKA Twigs does similar things with motion and perspective, primarily as they relate to the construction of narrative space. Unlike “Champagne Coast” whose motion on rails helps to flesh out its depiction of a two-yet-three dimensional “home” space, creating, in the process, an enterable yet uninhabitable tableau, the fantasy elements of “Two Weeks” use the tableau to purposefully exclude the viewer. We begin close – golden vapor rising, a shivering crown, a hanging, swaying drape; the limited resolution makes it difficult, immediately, to tell if what is seen is physical or drawn. Twigs seems real, for the lighting of her skin, her motion, intimate a physicality which the background, which becomes increasingly flat as we pan out, does not. Yet, the miniscule dancing clones of Twigs, shot all at different times and stitched together, confuse our perception of depth. Is the Twigs upon the throne simply massive, Zeus seated at his temple at Olympia, a veritable goddess? Or are the golden dancers purposefully small? As the camera pans out, a collection of white-wearing women waits in the background, smaller yet than the dancers and the central figure. So what is happening?
Figure 2: “Two Weeks” video directed by Nabil Elderkin.
The eye, upon looking at the video’s slow withdrawal, attempts to do the work of making sense of the content as a spatial project. However, as the space of the film is continually distorted by the gradual reveal of its visual information, the eye ceases to be able to construct a meaningful spatial picture. The women in the back seem shrunken – their smallness does not signify their distance from the viewer, nor does their juxtaposition besides backgrounded special markers tell us anything about their relative size. The golden dancers at times intersect with the goddesss-figure in ways which do not intimate depth, but flatness. Watching this video the first few times, I began to notice these things, and immediately assumed it was due to Nabil’s botched editing, but the video is purposefully flattened in order to mess with the passive functions of the eye and the ocular production of spatial information. Lyrical cues point us in the right direction. The song attempts to persuade a lover of the narrator’s sexual and physical prowess, particularly in relation to the addressee’s current lover: Lines like “I can treat you better than her” and “Mouth open you’re high” ooze a kind of sexual and romantic confidence, equating her love to that of a drug. The various permutations of Twigs, each having their own choreography and set motion, each similar yet distinct from the other, intimates the feeling of grandeur and power that the central goddess-figure symbolizes. Slowly panning out, each figure writhing to the music, the tableau highlights a multifoliate, multidimensional figure to be differentiated from the addressee’s lover. Yet, as the camera pans out, more and more information is added, which confuses and disorients the eye, primarily because the cues to which the mind turns to construct an idea of three-dimensional space are overwritten by the impossibilities of the film’s construction. This disorientation is the result of the collapsing of the narrative images – Twigs is able to be multiple entities independently, to be both the nurturing goddess figure and the nourished dancer, but the flattening of our fixed perspective, the video’s not-rightness, intimates the possibility for a contained multivariance. The three-yet-two dimensionality of “Two Weeks” speaks to the lyrics’ own invocation of confidence and grandeur, the narrator saying that she can do all the things her competitor cannot, that she can be multiple entities at once.
Finally, this brings us to “Stonemilker.” The video, shot by Andrew Thomas Huang, is unlike most music videos, not only because of its simplicity – a woman at a Icelandic beach at dusk – but also because of the means by which the viewing experience functions as part of the video’s drama. “Stonemilker” is shot using 360 virtual reality camera technology, and therefore the viewer must actively follow Björk as she moves around their fixed position lest they lose her. The video opens at one position, but if the viewer tarries, they lose her as she darts to the right edge of the camera. To keep up with her, they must either move their head in the virtual reality headset, or drag the camera across to follow. With each movement of the song, Björk moves to a different cardinal direction. After the first verse, she splits in two. Following her becomes difficult, for now you must oscillate between ignoring one of her copies in order to watch the other. Their choreography is not duplicated, and to engage with the film, to focus on a particular image, we must actively choose which Björk we will choose. The refrain “A juxtapositioning fate / Find our mutual coordinate” signal the structuredness of this narrative choice to focus on one to the spite of the others, or to oscillate ineffectually between all of them; the impossibility and the unfairness of this choice echoes the rupture Vulnicura as an album attempts to mediate and understand.
Figure 3: “Stonemilker” video by Andrew Thomas Huang
A simple piece in terms of its outward composition, the narrative architecture of “Stonemilker” is markedly complex. As a piece of art, it forces us to participate through moving the camera and shifting our gaze. While the camera remains fixed in place, and the space itself relatively background, it is our narrative interaction with space as a character in the video’s drama that ultimately signals Heath’s notion of “narrative space” as “space becoming place,” as place (or, as Marc Augé would call it, lieu) as a site for narrative exchange and subjectivity through the viewing experience. There are endless viewing experiences for the film based on what we choose to watch. One can watch the beach and the stones for the seven minutes, or watch one Björk, switch to another; turn up and watch the sky, or attempt to count the copies through looking at their feet, and all permutations of these actions. The spectacular aspect of the film is overwritten by our interpellation to act within it. This creates a unique narrative experience for the viewer, for the viewer now interacts with the film, and constructs their own narrative experience based on what has been seen, remembered and, through this, what remains unseen and unknown. As Björk moves, splits into two, drifts into nothingness, or appears from nowhere, our drive to continue watching at one standard perspective can lead to her annihilation from the image. As the song discusses the intransigence of a lover’s unwillingness to open himself up, to yield the tides of time which crash in the background, we feel the very tensions which make “Stonemilker” as a song and Vulnicura as an album so powerful; the bidirectional growth of two lovers, the mutability of the one and the intransigence of the other.
I have chosen the three videos because I think they engage with a narrative spatial production distinct from some of the more cinematic standards of the music video. Each film plays with space in ways which force us to think about its construction and implementation as part and partial to viewing experience. The fixity or motion of the video influence the mean by which affective and lyrical content are received and understood – the “juxtapositioning fate” of audio music and visual motion can create nostalgia, grandeur or sympathy beyond the possibilities of the one or the other. They make us feel, remember and desire through mobilizing space and its construction as a site of emotional discourse.
 Notes on time: the exact temporality of the film is difficult to place, and the means by which the video “reminisces” distorts our ability to determine its temporality. Some of the furniture fixtures are quite ornate – rococo fixtures in frames directly preceding ones with lava lamps. Covergirl campaigns with Rihanna point us to the 2000’s. The collage of images are not supposed to intimate time-boundedness, but their overall intention is to produce an awareness of presentness through the arrangement of a juxtaposed, seemingly equidistant past. A rococo bed has a MacBook on top of it in one room, while another room contains an entertainment system designed in the midcenturary modern style beside an ornate, unmatching vanity decked with crystal accoutrements.
I’ve been having a hard time these past few weeks. This is why I have fallen off my pledge to write a blog post every week. I am sorry for this, and sorry to anyone who has been in some way impacted by my manic behavior. I am unsure of the source of this malaise inside of me, this feeling of momentary dread. My IBS has flared up, and everything I eat accompanies discomfort and nausea. I don’t have much motivation to do anything, find my reading uncompelling, have been going to the gym sporadically. I have been very sensitive and prone to jealousy, have felt at times too isolated in a once-beloved solitude, yet suffocated by the presence of others. Everything seems to bring me a kind of disquiet, I cannot pay attention in class, my research has become a chore, and I’m slipping into the kind of “sensory” dressing that haunted me when I was younger. And none of this is new, but the inability to locate the source of the discomfort, the thing-which-is-not-right, is bothering me. I will likely not know what it is until the moment, however long it will be, has passed. And so I stumble around, still, in this momentary darkness, unsure of how momentary, as always, it will be.
Or on the abuse of language
The word anxiety appears a lot in ordinary language. It is a neat, Latinate word, and therefore sounds, somehow, more sophisticated than its Germanic near-synonym, angst. Yet, people’s fascination with the word anxiety is not related so much to its origins, obviously, as but the idea behind anxiety as a social practice, as legible information, and as affect. It can be, perhaps, attributed to the introduction of commercial psychopharmacology in the 1990s that conversations about mental health have become more common place in American life, words like “anxiety” and “depression” losing the clinical or philosophical power to which they have been traditionally ascribed and becoming, somehow, talking points in ordinary conversation. “I was so depressed after watching The Grave of the Fireflies.” “The sound of your chewing is driving me insane.” “You make me so anxious when you say things like that.”
On the most base level, these words are being inappropriately used in these contexts. English is a vast language, and thus we cannot blame the lack of stand-ins for these quotidian and seemingly harmless abuses of language. The Grave of the Fireflies is, indeed, a saddening movie, and the sound of another person’s mastication is indeed incensing, and hearing people say things glibly and without regard for the impact of their actions can indeed make individuals nervous, but the words used above speak to and are representative of things beyond the scope of annoyance, aggression and sadness, ordinary emotions which construct the landscape of the allegedly ‘sane’ mind. It is not so hard to use other words, to be more precise with language, even if it requires – get this – having a degree of forethought and political introspection which often seems to us, as postmodern neoliberal subjects, utterly draconian. It is easy to write off these suggestions as simple political correctness, a term which, ironically, has become almost inappropriate when it is deployed. We must be politically correct not only because of the potentiality for inflicting pain and suffering onto individuals already subject to the pain and suffering of existing with perpetual stigma (being discredited or discreditable; being other or having the potential to be exposed as other; self-outing or out-able;), but also because political correctness requests something of us whose shape and feeling we only understand because of its fundamental absence: the knowledge that we are, at our very core, bigoted and uncaring.
I have talked already about affect and ideology, and thus I won’t bore you with the details of an unfinished and underfurnished theory. In short, ideology becomes affect in order to save us the work of constantly being of-the-world and present, of thinking always about the order of things and, most meaningfully, wrestling with the web of signifiers which both deprives us of power and imbues us with it all at once. Ideology is a kind of cloud computation – we allow the cloud of ideology and social belief to act on our behalf, to compute and analyze a sequence of events and thus yield a response. Because we do cannot know the logic of the ideology, we do not question it, nor understand it as fundamentally logical. It simply is, and we act upon it without understanding, for ideology and affect function outside of the mind, are part of the material of the body.
What does this have to do with political correctness? Well, we must first break apart this phrase. Political here has a significant meaning. It is not the variation of political which is related to civic politics, that’s to say, government, elections, mayoral campaigns, etc. It does, of course, figure in these kinds of institutions as a kind of vanguard of liberalism which seeks, it seems, to divest the American people of their freedom of speech. The political in political correctness is revealed therefore in this very idea. Political correctness attempts to rectify the power relations between the stigmatized (others) and the unstigmatized. (what Erving Goffman calls “normals”). It attempts to speak to people in the language which they feel comfortable using. The political in political correctness is the interpersonal power dynamics which structure everyday life, which distinguish stigmatized from normal, which mitigate the process of discreditation, or the divestment of someone of their humanity and thus rendering them an other.
Now for the other word: correctness. The term correctness is more or less related to the idea that individuals should be allowed to come to a consensus about how they wish to be addressed as a collective “different” (read: not other) from the norm. The term “Negro” is no longer correct because it had been decided at some point in the 1960s, it seems, that the term which the Black world preferred was “black,” a term which, at least in the Anglophone world, had been just as much as an insult as “Negro” is now. Yet, the word “Negro” is not time-bound in its significance. It does not necessarily mean “A person of African descent and/or with dark skin from before the 1960s,” for the term “Black” is retroactive. Phyllis Wheatley was Black, even if she may have rejected that term during her lifetime. Negro continues to mean “Black person” or “Person of African descent” or “dark-skinned person” in ordinary parlance, but it has become obsolete and dated primarily; it has fallen out of use, and has thus become incorrect.
The term correctness is thus troubling because it does not necessarily mean what we understand correctness to mean. The issue is not between right and wrong, for the word “Negro” and slurs like “nigger” and “tar baby” and “porch monkey” all semantically and semiotically mean more or less the same thing; a black person. The connotation of these terms are, of course, different, but none of them yield a fundamentally different signified image other than the black person. Because they all arrive at the same idea, they cannot be discredited as incorrect, so much as they are obsolete. Obsolescence is therefore a better idea because what is obsolete still functions and still yields results (these words still signify) but better, more appropriate and more reliable alternatives exists and should thus be used in its stead.
Let’s look elsewhere. The word “cripple” was once used as a term to denote individuals with impaired mobility. Folks who use canes or walkers, received mobility assistance from wheelchairs, or even people temporarily on crutches were called “cripples” in a language which was, in the early 20th century, not expressly derogatory. The word “handicap” did exist, but it was not necessarily a word which you were likely to hear in ordinary conversation; the word “cripple” was. The term is still used, although it has since become obsolete. Disability advocates shun the word primarily because it represents a time when individuals with impaired mobility were look upon with pity and fear. The dispossession of the self as an otherwise creditable person through the noun “cripple” divested individuals of their humanity, and thus its replacement sought to do away with the nominalization of identity markers all together. The same cannot be said of Black people, who are still often referred to as “Blacks” or as “the Blacks,” Asian people as “Asians,” although white people rarely figure as “Whites.”
Consequentially, gay men are rarely called “gays,” but the term “lesbian” is rarely attached to “women” as an adjective; lesbian is a fundamental ontological category. Gay men are, still, men, it seems. But to “refuse to yield” to the desire of men divests a woman of her essential “womanliness,” making her into a lesbian, a non-woman.
The advent of “queer” has helped to assuage this issue of language and sexual identity, although, like all new terms, it creates new spaces for ambiguity. Queer as a term is perhaps too broad, for it figures in that ever-expanding acronym as itself a separate category, despite it at least in theory attempting to encompass all non-standard, discreditable sexual identities. The very idea of queerness was reappropriated from the slur which the word queer was in the early 20th century, used primarily to label sexually aberrant men. The term meant “weird, bizarre, strange” but also physically/mentally unwell and these definitions ultimately coalesced into the pathology of homosexual behaviors as mental illnesses in clinical psychological discourse. Yet, the idea of unwellness was brought back and détourned in order to give rise to a new way of looking at these very kinds of ‘sick’ sexual practices. Yet, an interesting question in LGBTQIA discourse is the positionality of trans and intersex folks within the umbrella of queerness. Sexuality and gender identity are not the same, and some would argue that they are perhaps even unrelated. The term “queer” therefore represents an attempt to repurpose othering language while also in the process othering individuals whom its proponents and revitalizers have brought under their guise. It succeeds in weirdly counterintuitive ways at othering the very people it tries to save from othering. At the same time, the afterlife of the idea of sickness lives on in the word “queer,” primarily in the pathologizing behaviors to which we subject queered individuals, and the feeling of pity and disdain to which we subject them.
What do we do with the ghosts of words which refuse to fade, with these signifiers whose usage has been mostly banished to history-bound books we praise as classics of a national tradition, but which are nevertheless imbued with words and phrases which have not yet lost their significance, which are not lost to us, and whose cutting edge has not, it seems, dulled at all? Of course we cannot burn every book which ever contained the word “Negro,” nor can we avoid referring to others in identifying language. The omission of otherness, the refusal to acknowledge one’s own xenophobia, as we see in the case of metropolitan France, is itself odious, for it attempts to protect the seemingly just self from the revelation of our inherent and perhaps natural-feeling bigotry. To become suddenly aware of one’s powerfulness in a world which seems to prescribe you an unavoidable powerlessness is to be disenchanted, to lose sight of what it was that fueled your ambitions; the want of what you have been denied, at the expense of those you now deny. Yet, language changes, and so do human sentiments and social ideologies. Some words will be lost to us with time, and there may be a day when the noun “lesbian” does not yield any significant meaning to a reader or speaker. Yet, because it does now, we must strive to not only understand these words, but to interrogate the reasons why they are the causes of contemporary disdain. Political correctness is not about hurt feelings, which can easily be dismissed as the thin-skinnedness of millennials, but fundamentally attempts to democratize and destabilize power dynamics which everyday deprive the discredited of a power they were, unfortunately, never meant to have.
I haven’t been writing as much as I’d like. Last semester was definitely not what I had anticipated, and got in the way of this blog for reasons I regret. At the same time, I stopped posting my blog posts on Facebook, mostly because I was underwhelmed by the reaction to my writing, although I cannot expect people, regardless of how much support they give and how little I seem to be moved by what should be powerful, to fawn over every little sentence I produce. Yet still, while I enjoyed and profited much from my first semester of graduate school, I am remorseful for letting this blog, and my writing in general, fall by the wayside.
This year I am committing myself to being more productive in my writing, in however way I possibly can. A lot of writing this blog is just “practice,” a flexing of the muscles in order to see if I can force the web of thoughts and signifiers flying around my head to yield a meaningful message to, say, a stranger, although I’m sure if you are reading this, at this point in my life, I know you, and know you probably quite well. I have mentioned elsewhere (here) that I have this secret desire to be famous. This feeling bothers me primarily because it doesn’t match the image of myself which I have created, inside of which I try to live; a stoic, elegant, brilliant person with a natural knack for writing, whose talent alone will lead him to greatness. Yet, I cannot say that this image, as narcissistic as it may seem, is yielding the results I’d like. My blog has stagnated in the past year, perhaps because my content has drifted from underresearched essays on race and class to “dealing” with anxiety, something people, I’ve been told, find both impenetrable (because they cannot feel what I feel, and therefore cannot know; are frightened by the tangible limitations of their knowledgeability) and disturbing (for the same reasons). The older essays, while sexy and jarring, nevertheless represent a side of myself trying to wrestle with the essential questions of identity which many POC must know and refuse to acknowledge. My position as a Black man does not make me special, nor does my alleged eloquence help to make the bitter pill of internalized racism and affective violence any easier to swallow. When talking about myself, I am able to seize a kind of authority which no one else, ostensibly, can possess; who else can know you more than yourself? And it is perhaps the reliance on the personal, on the ultimately “unrelatable” as I have been told by my professors, that makes my writing so powerful for some, and disturbing for others.
I have been living with an anxiety disorder for four years. That’s to say, I’ve known about my anxiety disorder, was able to name the monkey on my back and recognize it as my own, for four years. My undergraduate studies will forever be colored by a apparently perpetual state of anxiety whose description seemed only to confuse people. My parents were disturbed when I told them about it, thinking that something had happened to me, that I was sick. My mother in particular would continue to use the cooing phrase “don’t stress yourself out” for the next two years in hopes that the repetition of that phrase would have magical, incantatory properties. My father simply withdrew a bit, as men are prone to do, unsure of how to help, unsure of how to mitigate the insatiable fire of rage which we call masculinity in the face of what seemed to him to be another parental failure. And this was all a narrative which was thrust upon me, for I never understood my anxiety to be a disease or my parents to have failed me because of it. Sure, it was painful, and the attacks unbearable, and the possessions unsightly, but when the episodes of deep introspection and guilt and self-pity subsided, when my mind cleared after would seem an eternity, I never wanted them to stop, so much as to bend them to my will, to use them. I never wanted my anxiety disorder to go away, to be ‘normal’ or ‘healthy,’ likely because I was of the opinion that it would never cease. From the moment I knew that something was not normal, that I was not like everyone else, that my bouts of “overthinking” were chronic and inescapable, I knew I was strapped into a car I was now forced to drive, regardless of whatever other motorists believed of it or my fitness as a driver. This has been my coping mechanisms for the past five years, living in this body, and it has gotten me this far.
In the wake of the “great” scandal of Coates v. West, I made the decision to read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s new book We Were Eight Years in Power. I had, as I’ve mentioned, read Between the World and Me, a book that makes me feel weird for reasons I have yet to understand. The agita the two eminent intellectuals was fueled by the poignant albeit ill-advised comments of Jelani Cobb and a slew of thinkpieces either condemning West for his “envy” or making weird, seemingly unfitting historical analogies between Black men of yore vying for the single spot assigned by left-leaning public to Black men intellectuals. I must say that I found it difficult to silence the rhetoric about Coates when reading Eight Years, and I cannot say that I finished the text without my own reading being colored by some external ideology. Let this be a warning for what I am about to say.
“Talking about race is difficult.” A statement which is so easily and often repeated that it has lost its integral meaning, has become really just a slurry of syllables. Behind it, a person hides, suddenly unsure of how to broach a conversation which is in its nature unspeakable, the unfortunate coincidence of time, the advent of national tensions, of a gradual disillusionment we must all endure. How can we talk about an institution which is both incredibly visible and completely untraceable, which cannot be understood as a rational entity which can be empirically touched, understood, observed, experimented with – how do we talk about an idea, or a system of ideas? “These things are hard to talk about.” And every brown person in the room rolls their eyes because it is not so difficult to think about race as superstructure, as idea-system, as ideology, as existence. For the Black person in the room, the weight of their race has forced them to think of racialization as their very ontology, as their bare life. Race becomes one’s ontology, the inescapable categorization in which the spirit is bound. And of course the Brown person, the Black person, is aware of the cage which shackles them, even if the non-raced, the White person, cannot see the cage, can only see the illusion which is superimposed over the brown body, cannot fathom that what lies beneath that shroud, the threadbare image the racialized are forced to adorn, is far more recognizable, far more familiar, than they could have ever imagined. Talking about race is not difficult if you are willing to listen to the testimonies of others, to not fall prey to the conspiratorial desire to disenfranchise and to disavow the marginalized for what is ostensibly an invisible institution.
Talking about race is not difficult once you realize that racism is inside of you.
My family used to celebrate Kwanzaa. There’s no reason why we stopped, other than sheer laziness and a feeling of inappropriateness. Each day, we would light a candle and gather around the kinara, reading over a little pamphlet outlining the principles of the day, butchering the Swahili in the process (I pronounced Kujichagulia as Coochikajalia for the first ten years of my life, I shit you not) in ways which depicted our essential Americanness. We never bothered to celebrate Kwanzaa as a distinct holiday with its own composite traditions, did not do the individual activities which were called for for each corresponding day, and NEVER celebrate Kwanzaa in place of the good, wholesome day of our Lord and Savior’s birth. As the years went by, the kinara remained on the windowsill in the dining-room where it stood complicit while my mother killed pothos after pothos plant in its environs, gathering dust, the green and red candles losing their color with each year of neglect until everything was a sort of gray. One year it fell while we were cleaning, shattering on the ground, only to be replaced by a new one, its novelty sparking us to celebrate half-assedly once again. We haven’t celebrated Kwanzaa since.
The title of this post is a translation of Ferdinand de Saussure’s definition of semiology as a science that studies “la vie des signes au sein de la vie sociale.” The phrase itself is not very clear in the native French, let alone translated and disfigured into English; how do signs have life (vie) and why must we study them through the logical systems which found scientific study? How can we study the lives of signs within (au sein de) social life (vie sociale) and why must, according to Saussure, we study them this way? Does signs have meaning beyond the social realms/lives which they inhabit?