Stayed | Freedom | Hallelujah
By Ashon T. CrawleyMay 10, 2015
Habeas Viscus: Racializing Assemblages, Biopolitics, and Black Feminist Theories of the Human by Alexander G. Weheliye
WALKING IN THE middle of the street, onward to grandmother’s house, can get you killed. Walking in a property development in the rain wearing a hoodie while holding Skittles and iced tea can force you unceremoniously toward a violent demise. Showing up at the doorstep in an emergency, with a request for help, can be a murderous event. Listening to loud music in a car with friends can ignite white supremacist logic; can result in bullet wounds and caskets. Walking down Frederick Douglass Boulevard “wearing” a gender that is not “yours” can provoke a beating that leads to death. If you whistle, if you stutter, if you’re purported to degrade a white woman’s honor, you could be lynched; your swelled and mottled flesh could eventually be found in a river named Tallahatchie.
There are more. Why are there so many more? More names? More incidents? This essay was first drafted in the midst of protest against Walter Scott’s murder. White cop planting evidence, black cop standing idly by, assisting such a scene. But then there were more. Why also Eric Harris? Freddie Gray? Why, why, why?
Fatigue. Worry. The names too numerous, incidents to vulgar to recount here — black flesh, life in blackness — speak of life relegated to the zone of vulnerability, life that cannot ascend, life that cannot be assumed to the zone of so-called and so-thought protected. The current theological and philosophical narratives that provide the epistemology of our existence don’t tell us how these unprotected lives might actually be lived.
The quotidian, ordinary, everyday nature of these violent incidents should produce within us a restiveness, a restlessness, a desire to exist otherwise. It’s the violence that is the daily experience of black flesh, of black sociality, against which those of us committed to justice must contend. Modes of surveillance will not be the panacea for the end of such interactions. Police wearing body cameras will not end such violence. Sensitivity training will not obliterate the structures of policing as antagonistic to our lives. The urgency of our times, times that began before the inaugural events of Columbus’s 1492 blue oceanic colonial expansionist mission, demands a thinking about what we might call “otherwise” possibilities, otherwise inhabitations, otherwise worlds. The otherwise in all its plentitude vibrates afar off and near, here but also, and, there.
Black flesh knows this truth, the truth about the necessity of otherwise possibilities. In the midst of ubiquitous, seemingly unceasing violence, we need imagination. Black flesh has been theologized about and philosophized on; it has given shape, meaning, and skin to Western epistemologies of identity, humanity, and difference. To have and be flesh, to be disallowed the chance to be exalted to the station of “Man,” to the zone of the citizen, to leave the vestibule: this is the paradox that Alex Weheliye’s Habeas Viscus: Racializing Assemblages, Biopolitics, and Black Feminist Theories of the Human (Duke University Press, 2014) addresses. It is a book that offers us a meditation for imagining a world where the categorization and organization that produces race, and racialist distinction and hierarchy — where human life — might be organized otherwise than it is.
As its title suggests, Habeas Viscus approaches the topic of black enfleshment most directly through the writing of black thinkers Hortense Spillers and Sylvia Wynter. Of Wynter, Weheliye states:
Wynter’s large-scale intellectual project, which she has been pursuing in one form or another for the last thirty years, disentangles Man from the human in order to use the space of subjects placed beyond the grasp of this domain as a vital point from which to invent hitherto unavailable genres of the human. According to this scheme in western modernity the religious conception of the self gave way to two modes of secularized being […].
This disentanglement, of Man from human, provides the clearing for the dance and play in and as the always irreducible, always open and ongoing, otherwise possibility. The Western idea of Man, for Wynter and Weheliye, is a theological-philosophical concept, one grounded in anti-black and settler colonialist logics. Of Spillers, Weheliye offers: “the flesh is not an abject zone of exclusion that culminates in death but an alternate instantiation of humanity that does not rest on the mirage of western Man as the mirror image of human life as such.” Further still, he says, “To have been touched by the flesh, then, is the path to the abolition of Man: this is part of the lesson of our world.”
When we want to imagine otherwise possibilities — otherwise worlds — we must abolish the very conceptual frame that produces categorical distinction and makes them desirable; we have to abolish the modality of thought that thinks categorical distinction as maintainable. To attend to anti-blackness, we must be committed to considering the ways the Western theological-philosophical concept of blackness depends upon the assigned category about who can and cannot be Man, and therefore human. By delimiting ourselves to the assigned category that produces and is produced by the theological-philosophical creation of race-as-difference, we only still ever mine the very terms of order that have already been predetermined. But there is something that exceeds Western thought. This is the zone in which Wynter articulates otherwise genres, the zone where Spillers speaks of vestibules of blackness. Wynter and Spillers lead us toward otherwise frameworks. Following Wynter, who will be, what gets to be, otherwise genres of the human, not designated by theological-philosophical categories of difference? And following Spillers, who is, what gets to be, flesh? We are contending for otherwise modes of relationality.
Hortense Spillers, in her widely celebrated “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” states:
I would make a distinction in this case between “body” and “flesh” and impose that distinction as the central one between captive and liberated subject-positions. In that sense, before the “body” there is “flesh,” that zero degree of social conceptualization that does not escape concealment under the brush of discourse, or the reflexes of iconography.
The flesh is the liberated position, and this liberative force is anoriginal, or in Nathaniel Mackey’s words, “previous to situation.” What remains to be elaborated in Spillers’s conception of flesh is the generalizability of such a claim. Flesh is that which has priority before any theological-philosophical mood or movement befalls it; flesh is before the situation of Christian dogma or what Wynter would describe as the “coloniality of being.”
It all comes down to vibration, agitational roughness.
Everything living and dead, everything animate and immobile, vibrates. Vibration is the internal structuring logic of matter. Because everything vibrates, nothing escapes participating in choreographic encounters with the rest of the living world. It’s a reality of thermodynamics, of kinesthesia. Objects have a ground state kinesis that cannot be fully evacuated. If everything moves with its own velocity and force, everything sounds out, every object participates in the ceaseless pulse of noisemaking. This embodied refusal to be stilled will have been a gift, the gift of flesh, the gift of otherwise possibilities for thinking, for producing, for existing. This refusal of stilling has its discordant and harmonic registers, its choreographic-sonic force. And perhaps attention to sound is what Weheliye’s Habeas Viscus desires most emphatically, the sound of blackness, of black flesh.
In 4/4 time — four beats to a measure — the Blackpentecostal church of my youth would sing the song:
I woke up this morning with my mind stayed on freedom
I woke up this morning with my mind stayed on freedom
I woke up this morning with my mind stayed on freedom
Hallelu, hallelu, hallelujah
What interests me most are the ends of the lines, the stayed, freedom, and hallelujah. In this short chorus, the words stayed, freedom, and hallelujah are emphasized in the performance of the song, singled out through breathed, sung elaboration. The way we’d sing it, each word expanded beyond the other: stayed takes three beats to the measure, freedom four to the measure, and hallelujah exceeds the borders of the measure, stealing a beat from the preceding, taking all four of its own, and two of the next. Stayed remains, like its denotation, within the strictures of its measured elaboration; it remains, abides, and dwells. Freedom expands and rubs up against the skin of the measure, fills it out just to, but not exceeding, the point of overwhelming. Hallelujah as celebratory, unable to remain stilled, vibrating beyond the borders, unstable in all its Blackpentecostal resonance.
The way Weheliye abides with, meditates on, the thought of Wynter and Spillers produces a similar excess. By considering how they each in their own way trouble the assumptive logics by which we have come to think modern Man, the category of the human, and of racial difference, Weheliye takes up how their meditative thought enfleshes vibratory frequency, a movement that unsettles the assumptive logics and logistics of the known world. Their thought itinerary, their thought as critical performative practice of otherwise knowledge production, is the very practice of freedom. This thought, this practice, is the flesh.
In the chorus of “Woke Up This Morning,” sometimes the word freedom is replaced with the word justice; other times it is replaced by the name Jesus. This replacement is an exchangeability that is not about fungibility or discardability. Justice does not so much replace as revise and riff upon — offer commentary and enlargement to — the scope of freedom. And the addition and replacement of freedom and justice with Jesus is perhaps a means to assert what Jesus, in black sacred practice, is supposed to do and mean, is about what capacity Jesus is supposed to carry, the work he set loose into the world. To set at liberty those who are oppressed. To declare the acceptable year of favor and justice.
What these replacements give, with the rhythmic movement from stayed to freedom to hallelujah, is the vibratory force of the flesh, of a zero degree of conceptualization that does not escape because it is itself escape, it is itself liberative. This is the flesh, where the concept that vibrates against the measure is in flux but rooted, each in their capacity to excess. Wynter and Spillers do not want to replace one problematic conception of Man, of racialization, of gender, with other strictures that would have us bound. But like the move from stayed to freedom to hallelujah, their works would have us move otherwise, their works would have us critique through elaboration, offering up the concepts to melismatic rupture.
Flesh resonates everywhere. In the Bible, John announced the coming of the Lord thusly: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. […] And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us […].” And in the 2014 documentary Dreams Are Colder Than Death, Spillers says, “the flesh gives empathy” — the flesh, in other words, gives us the capacity to feel and share in concern with others. The flesh is grounded in sociality, is antiphonal, is perpetually reaching outward to establish relation. This reaching for relation opposes a concept of enclosed, individual embodiment and Spillers’s account of the flesh is apposite but in tension with John’s Word.
What we find in Spillers is the articulation of the otherwise than theological-philosophical argument, an otherwise claim about flesh, of which black female flesh is what most forcefully articulates what liberative positionality is or can be. Spillers undoes the relation of flesh to a particular religious tradition by considering it as the ground of being, by theorizing it as the plural event of blackness. Blackness — through the flesh — would bear the trace of what in Western thought is called “the religious” without being reducible to any one tradition. Spillers makes us consider how the flesh is not in the first instance Christian; the flesh is available to Islam, it is available to Ifá and Santería, the flesh is available to black disbelievers.
The flesh is the ground from which life emerges. The flesh is not reducible to black people — but blackness, black life, black sociality, vibration, verve, ongoing movement, and restiveness are — irreducible in the flesh. Blackness finds its emergence in the resistance, the movement, of the flesh. For Spillers to argue in favor of the flesh, the flesh as liberatory, is for her to disrupt theology-philosophy as a modality of thought. She implies the disruptive potentiality blackness poses for epistemological delimitation of thought that produces and is produced by what Sylvia Wynter so forcefully elaborates in her essays as Western Man. Such Man is the “coloniality of being/power/truth/freedom.” Wynter and Spillers work in the plural space of otherwise possibility to think otherwise worlds of relationality, otherwise modalities for existence.
Spillers radicalizes John by mobilizing him to the level of a specific generality. Rather than flesh being made from word, from logos that precedes, flesh is that which stands before any such possibility for words to name, claim, shame. Spillers demonstrates how the flesh instead becomes word, through violent encounter, through theological-philosophical adjudication. What if the flesh was made word, was made to be constrained by the sign, the symbol. As word, it is that which always fails to fully capture the uncapturable liberatory vibration of the flesh, it is that which had to be transformed through theology and philosophy in order to produce the sense, the coherence, of Western epistemologies. Perhaps a different encounter, a liberatory encounter with words grounded in the vibratory frequency, the flesh of our existence, is needed.
All we have is metaphor. Each word, phrase, statement we make merely approaches concepts we would seek to name, claim. All we have is the capacity for metaphor as irreducible relationality, of objects being with other objects, of ideas and concepts forming through relation. Metaphor is excess, excess that is constitutive of otherwise possibilities. Metaphor is excess that precedes any movement or nomination toward word, toward phrase, toward statement. This excess, as metaphor, is the grounds for thinking black life, life that constantly escapes into the zone of relation, life that refuses to leave excess as grounding. It is why black dance, vibration, good vibration and movement, is found at the moment, at the site, of disruptive noise in Baltimore. What else would cause folks to dance to Michael Jackson’s catalogue, to make a metaphoric statement that exceeds the bounds of sense? Music and dance, sound and choreography, are metaphors, are the performed excess of something, in the flesh, that was heard, felt — some vibration or movement — that performance seeks to discover continually. Music and dance, sound and choreography, approach that which was felt, approach that excess pulse and rhythm that remained. Like ceaseless misunderstood tears, or laughter, after a dream. Words only gain their meaning by relation, by what precedes and comes after. Words await excess to establish connection. It is this generative opacity of excess Wynter and Spillers both elaborate.
Such that stayed, freedom, and hallelujah enunciate the failure of words as enclosed objects. Such that meaning emerges with stayed, freedom, and hallelujah through vibration, through resonance, through running up under, rubbing up against, and exceeding the enclosure of musicked measure. Black flesh knows something of the truth of elaboration and elongation, about expanding within loopholes of retreat, about movement and vibration against the strictures of cramped time and space.
To privilege the flesh is to consider the otherwise possibility of relationality as not grounded in our capacity to endure suffering. There is something that exceeds the totalizing force of seemingly ceaseless violence, some excessive force that was already in us, in us as flesh, that refuses to be suppressed. What to make of the various modalities of violence that befalls flesh, the violence of police and militarization, the violence of Middle Passage and indigenous genocide? The violence of settler colonialism and Jim Crow, of immigration “reform” and racialized incarceration?
And what to make of the theological-philosophical modality of Western thought that produces categorical distinction such that we are supposed to think, for example, indigeneity apart from and in contradistinction to blackness; that we are to think the irreconcilability of black suffering and Israel’s occupation of Palestine? Is there a way to think otherwise than violence befalling community as the grounds and basis to think relation, to think connection itself?
The ceaseless pulse of violence is the epistemological frame by which modernity enacts itself, empowers and revises itself, unending violence is the enclosure and logic of modernity’s operation and, importantly, is how the concept of Western Man emerges. To ground otherwise possibilities for relationality in the violence, incalculable and insufferable, that happens to us is to adhere to the logic, is to adhere to the epistemological enclosure and frame, to the musicked measure and rhythmic pulse, of Western theological-philosophical thought. Weheliye’s Habeas Viscus attempts to get us there, attempts to think Wynter and Spillers together to produce an otherwise meditation on the concept, on an otherwise genre, of humanity.
This is not to deny that black suffering, that suffering in black, exists. I began this meditation with a listing of spectacular events, leaving out the many, many more that have gone unremarked, though they are remarkable in their pervasiveness. Rather, this is to question the limits of thinking relationality through suffering as a logic and organizing principle. It is that we still feel, love, have joy, eat good food, smoke and drink liquor and party, it is that we still dream dreams, have visions of otherwise possibilities, tap into imaginative resources that make these experiences of black life in the flesh so acutely sensed, perceived.
Such that even numbness to our times is a means to producing the fleshliness of existence, an otherwise feeling of skin and bone and muscle and sinew that draws us into and out of worlds. Even our numbness is a means to withdraw to the mystery of interiority to allow feeling to flow freely, as if numbness becomes the womb for gestational temporal pause, a shield to allow the ongoing emergence for thinking — and in such thinking, producing — otherwise worlds.
Womanist theologian Delores Williams offers the following critique of Black Theology and the place of suffering:
The black experience assumes that the suffering characteristic of the African-American community has resulted only from the horizontal encounter between blacks and whites. The wilderness experience suggests that this characteristic suffering has also resulted from black women’s oppression in society and from the exploitation of black women in family contexts.
What Williams detects, what Williams discovers, is that the very concept of suffering needs a blackqueer intervention, one that takes seriously and engages a feminist and womanist hermeneutic. As an elaboration on a black-white horizontal encounter, what she outlines is the way black suffering as a categorical distinction centers the wounding and injury of male desire for propertied relations, how black suffering is normatively grounded in a heteropatriarchal means of thinking the world, thinking the individual, of thinking modern Man.
Articulating black suffering this way interrupts black patriarchy from assuming the “rightful” place in black community. Black suffering would then come to share strong resemblances to what Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s report would call the “tangle of pathology” of black social life. This elaboration of suffering would then come to strongly resemble nationalisms; both are about the “rightful” place of Man.
With the proliferation of violence of transwomen of color, with black women being the fastest growing prison population, with media blackouts regarding police violence against black women — in the forms of sexual assault, physical violence and murder — it becomes important for us to produce justice work that isn’t masculinist at its core. This would be work that does not produce suffering, articulated by dominant narratives, as the point of coherence and convergence, as the practice of displacement from one’s proper role as citizen, as subject, as aspiring to be Man. And this is because suffering, the kind Williams critiques, would remain the zone of male lament regarding displacement, attempting to crowd out other voices because of the individuating nature of the very concept.
What Williams discovered but left for us to elaborate are the ways black suffering as categorical distinction could not accommodate the materiality of reality of the whole of people called black, how it was always already a delimitation of thought. What if suffering were not the point of departure, what if we did not utilize the epistemology of male injury outlined by Williams, what if we produced — perhaps in the way of Jack Halberstam — failure as an art, as aesthetic practice, to think and conceive otherwise relationality? Perhaps our capacity for relationality otherwise remains unthinkable, a relationality not based on what violence can do, how it does befall us, but a relationality that privileges the discarded remains, the excesses, of aesthetics. This would be a relationality that exists at the limits of knowledge, perhaps Denise Ferreira da Silva would say.
Let’s meet in the zone of otherwise possibilities, what Williams calls the “wilderness,” what might be considered — following Sylviane Diouf — the secret place of marronage. Timothy James Lockley says of Maroons that they “set out to form independent communities that were self-sufficient and that could exist outside of the systems of government created by Europeans in the Americas” and that these spaces were at times where Africans and Natives, blacks and indigenes, came together in the service of producing otherwise sociality.
At precisely the moment citizen-subjects were emerging in metropolitan centers, the plantation zone gave rise to an ecological practice closely linked to marronage, a process through which human agents found ways to interact with nonhuman forces and in so doing resisted the order of the plantation.
Such coming together through emergent otherwise forms of personhood, in the wilderness, in swamps, in otherwise landscapes that had their attendant soundscapes, would be a critique of Western theological-philosophical Man, would come to include otherwise possibilities for relationality not just between these otherwise modes of personhood but otherwise relations to land itself, a critical intervention into what would come to be normative relations to the ecological and the necessity of displacement, of settler colonialist logics and logistics.
Autonomy was at the heart of their project and exile the means to realize it. The need for foolproof concealment, the exploitation of their natural environment, and their stealth raids on farms and plantations were at the very core of their lives. Secrecy and the particular ecology of their refuges forced them to devise specific ways to occupy the land and to hide within it.
Marronage is the practice of intellectual possibility otherwise.
And it is there where stayed, freedom, and hallelujah sound in and out, produce resonance. It is there where stayed, freedom, and hallelujah lose their religiocultural specificity not in the cause of dilution but in the production of dispersing the metaphor relation, the sonic force, the liberating enfleshment such sounds, such sentiments, generate. It is in the zone of the openness, the space of vulnerability, that must be protected.
Weheliye states that “the flesh provides the ground, the loophole of retreat, the liminal space, and the archipelago for those revolutions that will have occurred but remain largely imperceptible within Man’s political and critical idioms […].” It is this imperceptibility to Man, to a modern discourse and disciplinary apparatus, an imperceptibility to normative modalities of existence and desire, that would have been a gift, the gift found in flesh. This is what is rehearsed with each protest for and praise of black flesh lost to the violence of modernity, to the violence of police and poverty. What is rehearsed and performed is an excess the remains, an excess that is imperceptible though its force moves and vibrates and is generative for thinking and imagining otherwise. Such excess is the abolition from the normative genre of Man. And in such excess is the celebratory possibility of otherwise.
Hallelu, hallelu, hallelujah …
 Hortense J. Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” in Black, White, and in Color : Essays on American Literature and Culture (Chicago : University of Chicago Press, 2003., n.d.), 206.
 Delores S. Williams, Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk (Orbis Boks, 1995), 159.
 Daniel Patrick Moynihan, “U.S. Department of Labor -- History -- The Negro Family - The Case for National Action,” accessed April 6, 2011, http://www.dol.gov/oasam/programs/history/webid-meynihan.htm.
 Timothy James Lockley, Maroon Communities in South Carolina : A Documentary Record (Columbia, S.C. : University of South Carolina Press, c2009., n.d.), ix.
 M. Allewaert, “Swamp Sublime: Ecologies of Resistance in the American Plantation Zone,” PMLA 123, no. 2 (March 2008): 341–2, doi:10.1632/pmla.2008.123.2.340.
 Diouf, Slavery’s Exiles, 14.
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