Edouard Glissant’s L’Intention poétique has recently been translated by Natalie Stephens; Poetic Intention will be out from Nightboat Books in March. I’ve been immersed in, and totally messed up (in the best sense) by, Glissant’s work since last Fall, when I got the chance to participate in one of a series of panel discussions on his work organized by Mantha Diawara and Avital Ronell at NYU. It was daunting enough having to deal with their presence, let alone his, and then when I got there, Kamau Brathwaite was sitting in the front row. By the time it was my turn to talk I couldn’t talk but I did have enough gumption to bring some help, in the form of a recording of Trane’s opening statement and parastatement of the theme of “My Favorite Things,” recorded in New York at the Half Note in 1961. I thought to bring Trane with me because of that rapid, tortuous flight from one pitch to another, an accelerated ascending and descending of the scale, that he performs at the end of the solo. I’m always stricken—by the way he glides (Mackey famously remembers how Baraka once said of John Tchicai that he slides) away from the proposed. But this gliding is rough, tossed, rolled by water, flung by waves. There’s a kind of obscurity, even a kind of madness in Trane’s glissement, his glissando. This opacity of gliding is chorographic philosophy, thinking on the move, over the edge, as exhaustive, imaginary mapping of an underworld and its baroque and broken surfaces. This ongoing, ruptural moment in the history of the philosophy of relation, “in which,” Glissant says (in a wonderful interview with Diawara—an excerpt, actually, from a film on Glissant that Diawara has shot that has been translated by Christopher Winks), “we try to see how humanities transform themselves,” is more and less than the same old story. It’s torqued seriality—bent, twisted, propelled off line—is occult, impossible articulation. The line is broken; the passage is overtaken, become detour; it is, again as Glissant says, unknown; it bears a non-violent, unavoidably violent overturning, a contrapuntal swerve, a voluntary submergence way on the outskirts of assent; it performs a rhizomatic voluntarity, roots escaping from themselves without schedule into the outer depths. This involuntary consent of the volunteer is our descent, our inheritance, should we choose to accept it, claim it, assent to it: forced by ourselves, against force, to a paraontological attendance upon being-sent, we are given to discover how being-sent turns to glide, glissando, fractured and incomplete releasement of and from the scale, into the immeasurable. Coltrane’s music, its elegiac celebration, has a dying rise and fall. It descends and ascends us. It sends us. We are given to it. We give ourselves away to its gliding movement just as we give ourselves to the depths and heights of Glissant’s words. But not without resistance.

I was already teaching Zong! back then and it sent me to ask Glissant about something else he says in that interview. Also, my students wanted to know something more about what it means to have been sent, as Glissant says, (Lorna Goodison says to have been sent by history) “to consent not to be a single being.” What does it mea n to have been sent to give yourself away? Pretty much everybody I know is driven to dissent from such a movement, where consent is inseparable from a monstrous imposition, but Zong! had me and my students primed, nevertheless, to be drawn, against ourselves, to the rail, to the abyss, by the iterative, broken singularity it hides and holds, by the murmur of submerged, impossible social life—that submarine, excluded, impossible middle passage into multiplicity, where pained, breathlessly overblown harmonic striation, from way underneath some unfathomable and impossible to overcome violation, animates ecstasies of chromatic saturation, driven down and out into the world as if risen into another: impossible assent, consentement impossible, glissment impossible, impossible Glissant. Last semester we wanted to claim that sound and I guess I’m browbeating my students this semester to want some variation on the same thing. Zong! does not represent the ones who become multiple; it just asks you to join them.

Originally Published: February 15th, 2010

Fred Moten lives in Los Angeles, where he teaches at the University of California, Riverside. He is author of Arkansas (Pressed Wafer); In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition (University of Minnesota Press); I ran from it but was still in it. (Cusp Books); Hughson’s Tavern (Leon Works); B Jenkins (Duke...

  1. February 15, 2010
     Sina Queyras

    Very much looking forward to Nathalie's Glissant. She is an incredible translator (and I have had the pleasure of her translating my work so it feels a very intimate statement). She's a gloriously evocative writer as well. Wonderful to see her and Zong! in the same post. \r

    What you say, beautifully, about teaching/interacting with Zong resonates with me. I have written about my engagement with the book, with the act of reading it, which is so powerful because in order to enter into it, you must experience the Zong to some extent--you feel it, experience it, are submerged, as you say, in the text. \r

    Given NourbeSe's notes at the back, her own struggles with the text, and her account of needing some kind of blessing to tell, also speaks to this tension between the individual...and yes, I like your point about the invitation to join. But now my thoughts spin out, Fred, and you have informed the post I am currently working on. \r

    Also do see a post on Zong from Jake Kennedy posted on my blog last week. \r

  2. February 16, 2010
     Peter Greene

    Glissade, glissando - kid, you play the English language like a piano. Helter my skelter any time (eg: "This involuntary consent of the volunteer is our descent, our inheritance, should we choose to accept it, claim it, assent to it" - i mean, that was really quite good, wasn't it? n.b. i thought the rest of that sentence went all Harpo off the end of the bench), and this said, you shoulda never chickened out, Fred, you should button up your vest next time, drop a couple of Adavan or the nearest thang and learn to sing your stuff at the top of your decent ranges - you have some jazz yourself.\r


  3. February 16, 2010
     Fred Moten

    hey sina!\r

    it's her submergence in the archive--she had to dive, like a bell, in to the sea and into the law or, more precisely, into the legal system's suppression of law, its ongoing burial of the general autonomy. she (Ms. Philip I mean!) becoems a speaker, a soloist, come to re-affirm the consent Glissant speaks about, by way of her own surrogation of submergence (I'm thuinking about Joseph Roach's Cities of the Dead here). Anyway, I just wanted to respond a little bit and now I'm off to read Janke Kennedy's post and your new post. It's cool to have somebody to talk to about this!

  4. February 17, 2010
     Bhanu Kapil

    Fred, hi. This is Bhanu, who left, but returns, to the sub-space, where perhaps I should have stayed in the first place -- where I belong?! -- to say: I had one of the roughest days of my life as a teacher today, holding the space for ZONG! [Distrib. Glissant's OPEN BOAT]. It was, to cut a long story short, an excruciating afternoon. Someone said, did you see that Fred wrote on Harriet on teaching ZONG! So -- extr. grateful for your post. To tentatively check it out, press HARRIET and to encounter writing that meets the day. I wrote FRED MOTEN on the board. I wrote GLISSANT, then came home to this: massive.

  5. February 17, 2010
     Fred Moten

    hey bhanu,\r

    you made that cool move to subspace right on time, i think, and it's good to know that you'll be waiting for us. i wanna see if i can get one level below that!\r

    i'm sorry you had one of those days. i'd love to hear the long story you cut short. i know that ,nevertheless, something must have happened, because it always does, that you'll be able to go back and recover, salvage, so to speak. i'm getting back to Zong! in class tomorrow and will let you know how it goes..

  6. February 17, 2010
     Fred Moten

    I didn't chicken out.

  7. February 17, 2010
     Peter Greene

    @FM: Sorry didn't mean to be flip. I just meant that next time you feel too overwhelmed to speak, i wish much that you will hurtle forth and sing, 'cause your prose is a damn trip. Apologies for coming off wrongfooted and mouthy.\r


  8. February 17, 2010
     Sina Queyras

    Yes, I get the "submergence in the archive" and love that image of the diving bell. The text as elegy, as recreation though and/or as Jake says, the sense of voices needing to be heard sends shivers up one's spine. Each section of Zong has its own specific level of engagement. It's a remarkable accomplishment, all of the notes struck in each section, and then visually, orally the intense differences between the different sections. And all using the same root text. \r

    Talk about a constraint! And for those who think that constraints lead to wooden texts--this is a text that blows all those assumptions out of the water. \r

    One of the questions I had about encountering Zong is the role of the reader. Does she too become a "soloist" a voice that "re-affirms" consent? Or acquiescence of class/race? The implications, the inability to get outside of the text. These are explosive questions. As a reader one is very much inside and there is discomfort in this...not just because of what is happening in the text, but back to the question of being invited in, the appropriateness of witness, the willingness as you say "not to be one" but to be one of. \r

    And the willingness to be unsettled.

  9. February 17, 2010
     Jake Kennedy

    Dear Fred, Bhanu, Peter, and Sina,\r

    It’s very exciting to listen in on this discussion of NourbeSe’s Zong! Thank you all so much for the insights. I too am reading and reciting from/staring at this astonishing book with my first-year college student colleagues. \r

    Just quickly I wanted to say that it was thrilling to have NourbeSe here in our town last month. One of things that she mentioned–and the thing that many students were scandalized-inspired by–was that she too is constantly “learning how to read” her own text… My sense is that her comment, for many students, suddenly made “authorship” less important than their own processes of engagement with a/the book. So, on the one hand, I think the students felt “freed” to “read away.” And yet I think what we’ve also discovered together is that this process (or “learning to read” Zong!) is also meant to constrain and “contaminate” (NourbeSe’s word) everyone. Thus the book enables reading and also implicates us as readers/voyeurs/consumers/killers. In this way I think the “not-telling” poetics is maybe partnered with an uncanny experience of “not-reading,” too. As Sina suggests, Zong! inside-outs/outside-ins the reading process. It’s such a massive creation!\r

    Anyway, I’m not sure if this is an appropriate venue in which to ask this but I wonder if you folks might be interested–eventually–in contributing to a special issue on Zong!? A poet-friend and I are hoping to collect some critical or creative pieces that explore/celebrate NourbeSe’s achievement. If you were interested you might send your emails through Sina and I will pick them up. \r

    Thank you again for the important posts.\r
    All best,\r

  10. February 17, 2010
     Peter Greene

    @Jake: No can do! I've never read it, can't get a copy, can't find a reading online, so on my little island I'll just have to sit and rot until somebody lofts me up and bears me unto a city. Your post, however, got me over to NourbSe reading her 'cyclamen girl' here if the link works but its all full of twenty-percent things and it is really very, very lovely. She is a wonderful poet! Thanks for the last kick it took to make me go look.\r

    She reads so well. I want to listen to her voice again.\r
    She writes so well, I must read a little more.\r

  11. February 17, 2010
     Peter Greene

    @All: She (NourbSe)reads, with a feeling of peace. I hear a great stillness, even in her ordinary human voice. I thank you all for Zonging me over to the work of this woman.\r

  12. February 17, 2010
     Peter Greene

    Found a few bits of Zsong on links from NourbSe's website. Thanks again, guys.\r