Textual Healing? I Don’t Think So.

Firstly, let me thank Farah Jasmine Griffin’s essay in Callaloo for the pun on the Marvin Gaye song.

Paul Gilroy, in an essay in his book, Small Acts, once helpfully offered a footnote in which he wondered if treating Black music as merely a series of texts was a sound political idea. Inspired by Gilroy, as well as Amiri Baraka and, of course, Nathaniel Mackey, I want to consider how the textualization of everything within contemporary critical theory, particularly in the academy, takes what is called ‘the linguistic turn’ too far, to the point where analyses of Black music end up as exercises in textual readings unmoored to the material conditions of Black music production and distribution.

The insurgent beginnings of Black Studies at San Francisco State University and subsequently in college campuses across the US grew out of an anger and frustration at the total lack of pedagogy which addressed Black life and history.

The demonstrations and sit-ins at student centers were not quiet events. The sound of the rhetoric telegraphed a demand for both the establishment of Black Studies and recognition that the founding of this ‘discipline’ was a profoundly important political and intellectual endeavor. That a distinct Black sound had political effects is hardly a new phenomenon in African-American history. For now, suffice it to recall the resonance (literal and metaphorical) of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s voice, the cadence of songs sung by the enslaved on Southern plantations, and the cavernous echo and delay in the dub music created in tiny recording studios in Kingston, Jamaica in the 1970s.


It was already Plato who understood the political power of music. He warned of the danger to the empire inherent in a change of music. In other words, he understood that music could topple the state:

Music…must be preserved in (its) original form, and no innovation
made. For any musical innovation is full of danger in the whole
State, and ought to be prohibited. When modes of music change,
the fundamental laws of the State always change with them
…” “Then,”
I said, “our guardians must lay the foundations of their fortress
in music?” “Yes,” I replied, ‘in the form of amusement: and at first
it always appears harmless’.” (Plato. The Great Dialogues, Volume 1)

I’ll come back to Plato’s ‘first sight’ metaphor in the next post. In contemporary terms, Plato’s thoughts on music are deeply conservative. What is of interest is his comprehension of music’s danger. Who now would consider Black popular music a source of political danger? Such a suggestion usually elicits derisive laughter. And yet, African-American music has always been a source of political ‘danger’, a danger to the existing social order and the racist and repressive state practices which undergird it.

That Plato would be highly sensitive to music is not surprising. What is puzzling is why his insights vis-à-vis music have remained buried in the standard textual reading of his dialogues. One could say that his thought remains in suspended animation, only to be brought to life at certain historical junctures. One need only recall Hitler playing loud, hateful nationalist songs in order to excite the immense crowds at the Nuremberg Rally to grasp what Plato knew about the ‘danger’ of music.

In contrast, an understanding of music’s power, danger, and centrality in African cultures was evident long before Portuguese slave traders came to the Gold Coast and hoarded millions of Africans into slave ships, which made the monstrous, barbaric Middle Passage to Jamestown and other Southern ports in the Americas, the Caribbean, and Brazil. Enslaved Africans in what was becoming the ‘United States’ knew exactly how music could be the tremulous beginning of escape from bondage. Zora Neale Hurston recalls the story of High John de Conquer: “The song he helps the slaves find had no words. It was a tune that you could bend and shape in most any way you wanted to fit the words and feelings that you had.” (Hurston, The Sanctified Church) (italics mine)

The hegemony of textualism has blocked access to the consideration of the affective dimension of hearing, viewing, and reading. If this sounds like a return to phenomenology, it is not so much a return as a revision, a kind of New World African phenomenology. Music is the art of affect par excellence. Thus, ‘readings’ of lyrics in the interest of the political are, at best, only half the story. Utilizing the work of Wilson Harris, Eileen Southern, Billie Holliday, Anthony Braxton, Nathaniel Mackey, Fred Moten, and others, in the next few weeks, I will show that Black ‘popular’ music holds the potential for a new Black politics that escapes the capture of the linguistic to address the everyday in African-American life, which has always been close to music as a way of life and often, as Cornel West has pointed out, reason to go on living. The reference to phenomenology is not accidental. One need only spend several hours within the valley of speakers in a Jamaican sound system to realize that roots reggae or dancehall, two cite only two examples, are recorded to be heard at illegal volumes. The Cartesian mind/body binary quickly comes to grief in sound system culture. The sheer volume leaves no part of the mind and body untouched; surrender to the music is total.

The importance of the everyday cannot be emphasized strongly enough. If there is an art form that reaches the African-American ‘body politic’ in the everyday, it is ‘popular’ music. (I strongly dislike the term ‘popular music’ because it not only condenses a vast range of musical genres, practices, and styles, few of which are actually ‘popular’, but it also reintroduces the high/low divide in cultural practices. In other words, ‘classical’ music does not lie within the purview of the ‘popular’).

To put it bluntly, I think it would be difficult to find African-Americans of any generation, gender, class, or sexual preference who never listen to Black ‘popular’ music. (This also applies to the rest of the US populace, but this is not the moment to consider the larger consequences of that fact.) Can the same be said for literature? I think the answer is obvious. I make this point not at all to disparage literature but rather place it in relation to ‘popular’ music in terms of the size of their respective audiences.


I always regard with suspicion scholarly work that claims to be ‘political’. If an author announces their book/essay as a ‘political reading’, this is cause for a greater degree of skepticism. By all means, give the author the benefit of the doubt, but ‘reading’ is not yet sufficiently metaphorical. Thus, ‘reading’ as a hermeneutic remains almost entirely within the sphere of textualism.

The naïve point is that a broad range of the population is unlikely to read such a critique. If this statement seems simple-minded and parochial, I must point out certain epistemological and institutional problems which have, to a great extent, domesticated Black Studies, moving it further and further away from anything that can reasonably be called ‘the black community’ (though that term clearly remains a contentious one). Though Black Studies was a serious, rigorous, intellectual, and affective endeavor from the beginning, it also addressed a constituency that contemporary, academic Black Studies has, to a great extent, little connection with. The field once represented, addressed, and crucially, embarked on pro-Black projects, from literacy campaigns, work in appallingly under-funded secondary schools, and other social programs. In short, it initially occupied a place, no matter how imperfect, in those geographical places where non-middle class Black people lived in the everyday.

Thus, it drew on the best dimensions of US Black lifeworlds: a commitment to pedagogy, a ‘canon’ which was not restricted to literature or poetry-and this is where Black Studies’ understanding of the power of affect and intellect as inextricable categories emerged.

The task ahead consists in comprehending African-American popular music precisely not from the creeping scientism of (ethno)musicology (which reduces musical forms to a checklist of presences & absences on a diatonic scale), nor from textual and/or deconstructive ‘methods’, not even from standard cultural studies approaches (discussion of youth culture, audience formation, or the banal ‘reading’ of song lyrics, et. al.) but from the sound of the music: tonality, timbre, cadence, rhythm, and the famous ‘blue note’ in jazz, one instance of the vast range of irreducibly Black structures of feeling. Is this not what Wesley Brown’s “tragic magic” means when he says:

I played in a Bar Mitzvah band. And it was a great job until I got
hit by that tragic magic, and I start playing a little bit before the
beat, a little bit behind the beat. I couldn’t help myself. I lost the job.
(Thanks to Arthur Jafa for this wonderful quote)

If this seems a misdirected and arcane approach, consider that slaves, denied literacy, found recourse to the sound of music, the sung, not the spoken word. And the sound of music, for enslaved Africans, not only communicated plans for lines of flight out of plantation space, but also allowed them to seize hold of music as a source of joy, outside of the range of hearing of overseers and slave masters. Music became a way of life. It contained the possibility of danger because it had the power to threaten the absolute control of Black bodies under chattel slavery. And it was music that played a central role in the agency and movement of Black people in white space, even though that agency remained severely truncated.

In an African-American context, this remains the case. There is another danger here, one I am mindful of avoiding: the hasty romanticization of African-American music. This trap has ruined many otherwise excellent historical accounts of the emergence of African-American music. It often runs dangerously close to racist, biological essentialist claims concerning the ‘natural rhythmic sense of Negroes’. And if anyone believes that idea is a laughable, historical relic, I can assure you that it is alive and well in forms not always so readily identifiable.

The textual has broadened its reach, in a relatively short period, attempting to address broader dimensions of experience in social, domestic, and public spheres. In other words, the social and political can, ostensibly, be ‘read’ as one would read ‘Beloved’ or ‘Moby Dick’. In response to the widening explanatory power of textualism, I want to explore sound, and more specifically the sound of popular music, which holds the potential for enormous political power, though it is regularly consigned to the growing realm of that which can be ‘read’ or, worse, thought of as entertainment for the masses, whose ‘real’ political work lies elsewhere (the orthodox Marxist view). This is a grave mistake.

I write this with a sense of urgency that is, in no way, an ad hominem attack on writers. Novelists, poets, playwrights, and all those who value the art of writing do not participate in the increasing power of textualism. They simply make art in the medium of writing.

This inquiry comes from a desire to find novel political and aesthetic strategies to slow or push back the terrifying rightward movement which has paralyzed the left, incarcerated thousands of Black people, and recently created an authoritarain system of surveillance and detention. When I speak of urgency, it is to speak also of insurgency. I want to reanimate the spirit and political passion which led to the creation of Black Studies as a renegade intellectual movement.

It is necessary to launch a strong, and unapologetic critique of the ways in which the textual hermeneutic has gained tremendous currency outside of literary criticism. It now informs criticism in visual culture, anthropology, history, and other disciplines.

Sign systems and signification came to prominence through structuralist anthropology ala Claude Levi-Strauss and the ways in which Ferdinand de Saussure, Charles Peirce, Emile Benveniste, J.L. Austin, and their peers fashioned linguistics discourses which migrated into the work of French structuralist critics such as Roland Barthes, who developed semiotics as a ‘political’ critical practice.

The late Jacques Derrida’s early work, particularly his immensely influential ‘On Grammatology’ was crucial to the emergence of the ‘linguistic turn’, which, though attempting to critique the logocentric character of Western discourse, nevertheless found recourse to the written word, and displayed a fidelity to signs, signifiers, and referents, influenced by Jacques Lacan’s belief that ‘the unconscious is structured like a language’. French post-structuralists and the cadre of scholars primarily responsible for the dissemination of deconstruction in the US academy might not have been aware that it would become rapidly de-politicized and eventually apolitical. But that is, nevertheless, what took place. The scholars to whom I’m referring above are part of what gets called The Yale School, and includes Paul De Man, Geoffrey Hartman, Jonathan Culler, and, to a lesser extent, J. Hillis Miller.

Deconstruction has become hegemonic in humanities departments in the academy. It is now another methodology which often runs precisely counter to Derrida’s early thought. His early work was in fact wholly concerned with the instability of language, the indeterminate character of truth claims, ways in which the written and the spoken were entirely asymmetrical, in an attempt to demystify the written word for those who still worshipped at its altar, and wanted nothing of the oral, the visual and ‘languages’ that had little to do with the written. The late Derrida’s concerns had very little to do with deconstruction. Rather, his last books were concerned with neo-marxism (the ‘spectres’ of Marx), human rights, friendship and the rise of fascism in fortress Europe.

Precisely because of the right’s inexorable intrusion into every space left empty, confused, and in need of direction, the rise of post-structuralist textualism in academic contexts throughout the 1980s is hardly surprising. Thousands of doctoral dissertations are written in humanities departments under the influence of Derrida and his descendants, even if filtered through nascent fields of study. Why? Because at first glance, much contemporary post-structuralist thought and Derridean deconstruction appears inherently political in contrast to close reading, new historicism, structuralism and other schools of literary criticism. In fact, the seemingly radical character of post-structuralist tendencies, and deconstruction in particular, are the safest way to tenure in the humanities.

Post-structuralist textualism is ultimately premised on representation. Important political questions around who represents, what is represented, and who and what has, historically, been unrepresented, have been at the center of fierce debates not only within cultural studies circles, but also within art institutions, some of which have not been made to answer such questions since their founding. And these battles were not always academic and polite. They frequently manifested themselves in a material fashion. Real, institutional changes did (and do) take place. However, the nearly endless production of scholarly work on representational practices brings with it the vocabulary of semiotics-signs, signifiers, referents, and so on. This clearly brings visual practices into the sphere of the textual.

It was already Renaissance art historian Walter Pater, in his magnificent book, ‘The School of Giorgione’, who remarked: “All art aspires to the condition of music”. Pater’s overwhelming love of painting and, moreover, the primacy he assigned the aesthetic meant he was willing to cede an extraordinary power to music. His eloquent statement also infers that music is not saddled with the burden of representation.

It is, therefore, not surprising, that to assert that ‘popular’ music has an immense political and social power in the context of a ‘serious’, scholarly discussion is to be met with reactions that range from a complete dismissal, to nervous evasions of the question, suggestions that ‘popular’ music is the purview of third-rate cultural studies scholars, and an incredulity that suggests the question might as well be: “How can we live without oxygen?”

“Louie, Louie” by The Kingsmen, two minutes, fifty-five seconds, has had a greater political, aesthetic, and social effect in the US than any novel, poem, painting, sculpture or film of the long twentieth-century. Because the present conceptual, hermeneutic tools available to critics are of so little use not only in evaluating this claim, but comprehending what sort of epistemological problems it presents for those whose intellectual passion has to exclude ‘pop’ songs. Ironically, it is the early Derrida’s most commonly misunderstood idea ‘deconstruction’, which serves as a conclusion of sorts. His term refers to the ‘procedure’ by which one social formation, art form, et. al, could only achieve a precarious stability by excluding some ‘thing’ that was central to it.

‘Popular’ music is the “constitutive outside” of what gets called ‘serious’ intellectual endeavors in the humanities. (Not to be mistaken with the Kantian notion of ‘condition of possibility’, though the two are often used interchangeably). ‘Pop’ music is the non-intellectual, the ‘entertainment’, mere kitsch against which real aesthetic objects are defined. Future work in the humanities will focus on sonority, discomfort, affect, auditory culture, racialized and gendered histories, and sensory formations which unseat the textual.

What is needed now is nothing less than a full-blown epistemic rupture. It is unlikely to come from ‘progressive’ humanities departments, which, though having broadened their purview, are, paradoxically, like McCarthyism. They look for subversion everywhere.

A repetition of, not to be confused with a return to, the insurgent birth of Black Studies remains possible. Novel ways of hearing cultural practices and artifacts, ways that take into account affect as central to the aesthetic and the everyday are so badly needed. A massive shift away from textual practices into the politically powerful domain of ‘popular’ music cannot but lead to a truly productive confrontation with the non-academic immiseration of the public sphere, the breakdown of civil society, and the ever growing ’surplus population’ (to quote Audre Lorde) required by the forces of global capital.

To attempt anything less betrays a terrible failure of the intellectual imagination.


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