When asked what I do, I sometimes respond, facetiously, that I study black people having sex.
Having commented on someone else’s “knotty” prose, I thought it only fair to post some of my own “knots” in progress. These might be called notes around what “I do,” at least a few days of the week, when I’m not claiming that the history of written pornography is central to modern histories of translation. It is!
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How does one negotiate between the ethical mandate of what Adrienne Rich terms the politics of location and Paul Gilroy’s critique of “the nationalist focus which dominates cultural criticism” (Black Atlantic 6)? What conceptual dis-orientations must one embrace, what we might call, living kizunguzungu, to trace the embeddings and fissures of the particular within its other histories—these might be called broader or universal, but one hesitates to metonymize history and event.
A more formal(ist) answer finds me caught between metonymy and synecdoche, spatiality and consubstantiality, as they mediate across and through blackness. It is a mobile project, and a long-term, life-long one, that seeks, in some abstract way, to trace the relationship between Alex Haley’s Roots and what Kenyatta describes as miri ya mikongoe, the roots of the fictional mikongoe tree. It is both this fictionality and its ongoing real-world effects (and this explains, in part, my ongoing love for psychoanalysis, which provides a language for tracing the effects of fantasy in life actions) that form the conceptual core of my intellectual and political projects.
Diaspora names this ongoing making and un-making of blackness, the conceptual, historical, and affective dimensions of which still remain to be mapped, discovered, explored. Over the past few months, I have encouraged others to think of diaspora not as what is past, but as ongoing fabrication, a tale, a story, an ongoing narrative. Even when we concentrate on historical events or anthropological ones, we are not simply describing, but fabricating. I think, here, of the work of dowry giving, which is to affirm and extend life-long obligations. One never completes this work.
Often missing from diasporic scholarship is the sense of ongoing fabrication: that those thinkers we now cite, Blyden, Crummel, Du Bois, Kenyatta, though ostensibly engaged in socio-ethnographies, made it up as they went along, and that their strategic fabrications grant us permission to also make it up as we go along, even as we must contend with them.
My focus is on diaspora as dissemination, forestalling or freezing in place the hetero-insemination that is foundational to diasporic scholarship.
If we focus on dispersal—remembering diaspora shares the same root as sperm or spore (and sperm is good because only ONE can fertilize)—then diaspora, especially the black diaspora, ceases to privilege hetero-futurity as the realization of diasporic history and action.
One other way to state this: queerness has always been central to any theorization of diaspora, though often occluded by the unquestioned and unquestioning hetero-futural aims of diasporic scholarship. In fact, one could argue that the emphasis on survival within diasporic scholarship—and I think, here, primarily of the black and Jewish diaspora—has often occluded those moments of queer world making that are, importantly, not melancholic fragments of truncated lives.
There is an argument about affect here.
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One of the great joys of seeing and sharing work in progress is that others get to experience the snarls of thinking, the moments before complete, smoother prose emerges and intimidates! Given the new availability of dissertations online, I have been comforted to read work that started as a dissertation, to realize that even scholars whose work I admire often began in the thickets of language, overwhelmed by too many ideas, crowded out by nominalizations, strangled, if only briefly, by writing tics—brackets, dashes, parentheses, asides.
These seams at the edge of writing allow my own fabrications, no matter how fragmented or inchoate.
Moreover, they offer some hope that I need not leave what I am daily learning—to write for a non-academic audience—when I turn to my academic work. Beautifully written academic prose is a wonderful thing to achieve. I think, for instance, of the many happy hours I have spent with Nietzsche and Freud and Wittgenstein, mostly because their writing (albeit in translation) is so amazingly fun to read. Where I cannot grasp arguments, I let aesthetics carry me along, and this, I must admit, has made the reading process much more relaxing, has helped me sink into language in a different way, with the pleasure I often reserve for poetry.
My undergraduate mentor, Linda Kinnahan, taught me how to do this through showing me how to read innovative poetries. Reading Susan Howe taught me how to re-read Judith Butler and Gayatri Spivak. One fragment at a time.
And also how to overcome the shame of acknowledging fragmentariness—this, of course, is a lesson I keep learning from Spivak, whose continual acknowledgment of limits allows for an ethical relationship to knowledge and learning.
So, here, my fragments.