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Fred Moten’s Brilliant Visit to the Bay

By Harriet Staff


Robin Tremblay-McGaw writes at X Poetics about Fred Moten’s recent trip to the Bay Area, where he talked at The Public School, read at Small Press Traffic, and hosted two reading groups for his and Stefano Harney’s The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study (Minor Compositions). Tremblay-McGaw also includes a poem here by Moten on The Gramsci Monument, and her introduction for his SPT reading. A glimpse of the experience:

On Sunday morning Fred apparently got up and started writing about 12 Years A Slave; he opened his talk with his very recent response to McQueen’s film via a tweet that Tavia Nyong’o at NYU had made in response to the film. While the promise of this tweet got me to finally sign up on twitter, the quote itself is a mystery. I can’t find it. I think Nyong’o said that this film would change the conversation and he might have made a claim about “black planetary consciousness.” Much has been made by many critics of the fact that McQueen is British; many asserting that this film could not be made by Americans. I believe Moten suggested that Nyong’o also made such a claim.

Moten took on Nyong’o and outlined what he sees as 5 unspoken formulations implicit in Nyong’o’s response. All of these, I believe, had at their center, shame as a modality. In brief, I can tell you that Moten hated this film. He sees it as portraying the black American worker as incapable of representing herself. The slaves in this film, those born into slavery, are depicted as too degraded to know they are degraded. He said the film works to make Solomon Northup a bourgeois subject like you. Moten also suggested that in the film, if you see degradation, you can’t enact or embody it. It must be seen in an other and disavowed.The film constructs Northup’s complete degradation in the moment he participates in black music, abandoning his violin and joining in the singing of Roll Jordan Roll. This discussion had implications for the field of Black Studies. But I cannot trust my notes, composed while I tried to focus on the flight of Fred’s journey, and serve as my own secretary simultaneously. This link is complex and we’ll have to refer to Fred’s current and forthcoming work to begin to take it apart.

And from Tremblay-McGaw’s great introduction:

In August of 2012 Fred gave one of the rostrum lectures at Bard. His talk was called “The Touring Machine: Flesh Thought Inside Out.” You can google it and watch it online at [V]imeo. As he began his talk, the technicians in the auditorium had some trouble with the sound system. When he returned to the podium, Fred remarked on the productivity of interruptions and invited students to break in and ask questions or make comments. And they did.

I have been moved and my thinking about poetry and black radicalism enriched and made more complex in reading Fred’s book In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition. This is a powerful book; the reader can’t help but be thrilled as Moten contests Marx’s assertion that the commodity can’t speak. He reminds us that Marx was living during the practice of slavery, during, as Moten writes, “the historical reality of commodities who spoke—of laborers who were commodities before, as it were, the abstraction of labor power from their bodies” (6).

In the Break is also a difficult book, one that requires labor, and struggle to keep up with its brilliant asymptotic flight. And when Fred was speaking to new undergraduates at Bard that summer in August, I think we were all going to be challenged to keep up with him. And then students interrupted him and the talk took a social turn, became a conversation, a being with one another.

Somehow Fred pulled off this high wire act keeping the discourse complex but meeting the audience where they were. I left that talk in awe of Fred Moten and gave the first person I saw—who happened to be Eirik Steinhoff—a big hug. I don’t go to church, but I felt like I had been in one. Maybe what I and others experienced in that auditorium was in Moten and Stefano Harney’s words: “a touch, a feel you want more of, which releases you” (Undercommons 99). Call it the church of the break, the John Coltrane, the B Jenkins, the Fred Moten church.

In [the unacknowledged legislator] from Moten’s 2010 book B Jenkins, he writes:

According to Shelley, poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. Let’s say the world is a zone from and within which life is constantly escaping. Poets sing the form of that endless running, that ongoing running on, always busting out of the sentence or cutting being-sentenced; but those broken songs, even in their incessant breaking away, cannot but bear the heavy burden of being-held. At stake, here, is a complex of weighted departure, of flight in seizure, of an emergent statelessness submerged beneath the state of emergency. There’s always a trace on the ones who want to go. Nevertheless, unacknowledged legislators sing diversion out of turn. They instigate small passages. Their envois strive to more than correspond (86).

Read it all at X Poetics.

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Posted in Poetry News on Tuesday, November 12th, 2013 by Harriet Staff.