Sam Chan and Paul C. Fermin keep their hands up and chin down.
Part of The Stakes of Naming, a series that asks an array of writers and artists what they need to say to live.
in dear science and other stories, katherine mckittrick devotes a section to citational practices—stuff like referencing and crediting and footnoting. what some might overlook as mundane, if not trivial record-keeping, mckittrick sees as "always bursting with intellectual life," as something able "to build the capacity for social change."
this vision is anathema to the ways referencing can devolve into name-dropping or clout-chasing—deploying citations as a way of bolstering credentials or demonstrating mastery. on the contrary, mckittrick asks: "what if citations offer advice? what if citations are suggestions for living differently? what if some citations counsel how to refuse what they think we are?"
mckittrick's phrases—"to build the capacity for social change"; "suggestions for living differently"—suggest material and collective stakes. indeed, she goes on to articulate the struggle more forcefully here:
Citation could, then, perhaps be considered one fulcrum of black studies: in a world that despises blackness, the bibliography—written or sung or whispered or remembered or dreamed or forgotten—ushers in, or initiates, or teaches, or affirms. This is the praxis of being black and human as struggle. This cites and sites a genre of humanness that emerged from but is not solely defined by plantocratic logics of dispossession: the works cited, what we tell each other about what we know and how to know, contain how to refuse practices of dehumanization. The works cited untangle systems of oppression and talk about resisting racist violence. The works cited are many and various divergent and overlapping texts, images, songs, and ideas that may not normally be read together. The works cited, all of them, when understood as in conversation with each other, demonstrate an interconnected story that resists oppression. We do not have to agree with all the works in the works cited. We do not have to like all of the works in the works cited. We do have to trust that the works in the works cited are helping us understand and talk about and theorize how to know the world differently. The praxis, then, is not about who belongs and who does not belong in the index or the endnotes; rather, it is about how we, collectively, are working against racial apartheid and different kinds and types of violence.
following mckittrick, we've assembled the following references, drawn from what we read, watch, and listen to daily. they've found their way into our chats and personal notes to help us move, as christina sharpe puts it, “along the possibilities, and the stillness, at the heart of thinking."
what follows has given pause and movement to our reflections—on what we dangerously repeat, and how to break from them; what we wish to hold onto, and how we aspire to become. in sharing citations and annotations that have deepened and expanded our friendship in innumerable ways, we hope they might do the same for you and yours.
Screenshot from Terminator 2: Judgment Day, 1991.
2. notice recursive logic and breach it.
“Autopoiesis” is a term developed by biologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela. It is used by [Sylvia] Wynter to show that we invest in our present normative mode of existence in order to keep the living-system—our environmental and existential world—as is. This is a recursive logic; it depicts our presently ecocidal and genocidal world as normal and unalterable. Our work is to notice this logic and breach it.
Katherine McKittrick, Dear Science and Other Stories, Errantries (Durham: Duke University Press, 2021).
Screenshots from How to Blow Up a Pipeline 2023.
As I write, I return to our conversations on the virus and the global pandemic, to consider how both the problem and a potential break with the problem, begins again, and again, delaying the End while reinscribing its centrality in each repetition.
Bedour Alagraa, “What Will Be the Cure: A Conversation with Sylvia Wynter.” Offshoot Journal, January 7, 2021.
"The general form of propositions is: This is how things are." That is the kind of proposition that one repeats to oneself countless times. One thinks that one is tracing the outline of the thing's nature over and over again, and one is merely tracing round the frame through which we look at it.
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 4.5
Screenshots from Caméra d'Afrique, 1983, in which Ousmane Sembène breaches the logic of Eurocentrism and recentres around himself and his people.
We have not overcome our condition, and yet we know it better. We know that we live in contradiction, but we also know that we must refuse this contradiction and do what is needed to reduce it. Our task...is to find the few principles that will calm the infinite anguish of free souls. We must mend what has been torn apart, make justice imaginable again in a world so obviously unjust, give happiness a meaning once more to peoples poisoned by the misery of the century. Naturally, it is a superhuman task. But superhuman is the term for tasks [we] take a long time to accomplish, that’s all.
Let us know our aims then, holding fast to the mind, even if force puts on a thoughtful or a comfortable face in order to seduce us. The first thing is not to despair. Let us not listen too much to those who proclaim that the world is at an end. Civilizations do not die so easily, and even if our world were to collapse, it would not have been the first. It is indeed true that we live in tragic times. But too many people confuse tragedy with despair. “Tragedy,” Lawrence said, “ought to be a great kick at misery.” This is a healthy and immediately applicable thought. There are many things today deserving such a kick.
Albert Camus, "The Almond Trees" (trans. Ellen Conroy Kennedy), 1940.
Revisiting trauma is useful because it can allow us to learn how to better steward and heal it by learning how to refuse to reproduce it. I think we repair by ever so slowly chipping away at the violences that uphold the edifice of European modernity: in the face of the barbarity that refuses our breath, we must steal it back for ourselves.
Zoé Samudzi and Noor Asif. “Breath Back.” Parapraxis, 2023.
3. power concedes nothing without a demand. it never did and it never will.
This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.
Frederick Douglass, “West India Emancipation” speech, 1857.
As quoted by Phyllis J. Jackson in “Liberating Blackness and Interrogating Whiteness,” in Art, Women, California 1950-2000: Parallels and Intersections, ed. Diana Burgess Fuller and Daniela Salvioni (Berkeley ; Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2002).
[sam & paul: frederick douglass' line came to us in a very special way, as we wanted to read something written by phyllis j. jackson in honour of her birthday. pj was an art history professor of sam's in undergrad. she writes the way she loves—as bell hooks writes in “all about love”: love is as love does, love is an act of will—namely, both an intention and an action.]
Phyllis J. Jackson in conversation with Frank B. Wilderson III at the Soul of a Nation Symposium, 2021.
Octavia E. Butler.
What is the word for keeping and putting breath back in the body? What is the word for how we must approach the archives of slavery (to “tell the story that cannot be told”) and the histories and presents of violent extraction in slavery and incarceration; the calamities and catastrophes that sometimes answer to the names of occupation, colonialism, imperialism, tourism, militarism, or humanitarian aid and intervention? What are the words and forms for the ways we must continue to think and imagine laterally, across a series of relations in the hold, in multiple Black everydays of the wake? The word that I arrived at for such imagining and for keeping and putting breath back in the Black body in hostile weather is aspiration (and aspiration is violent and life-saving).
Christina Elizabeth Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016), as referenced in Kameelah Janan Rasheed’s newsletter “I Will (?) Figure This All Out Later," March 2023.
Breathing. There is something that occurs in these texts that typically goes unremarked, or if remarked, is only done insofar as there is a spectacular instance of such. What goes unremarked, though certainly produced in the occasions of recounting movement, is the necessity of the breath, of breathing itself, as performative act, as performative gesture. What goes unremarked is how breathing air is constitutive for flight, for movement, for performance. We do hear about air, breath, and breathing in an indirect way when we read of the varied forms of punishment that were utilized to inhibit or obstruct air from getting into and out of the flesh. We hear, for example, of “heart-rending shrieks,” so much so that it would seem to be a narrative strategy and rhetorical device. Almost. The various stories, however, are not nearly contained to predetermined strategies. These narratives depend upon the repetition of the idea of how insidious and unvirtuous, how violative and violent, this peculiar institution was.
When narratives of escape were produced as incitement to affect—to intense emotion and feeling—for the reader, air, breath, and breathing were produced as aesthetic performance, announcing one’s existence in the world, enunciating one’s ongoing displacement and movement in worlds, producing critical disruption into the world of our normative inhabitation.
Ashon T. Crawley, Blackpentecostal Breath: The Aesthetics of Possibility (New York: Fordham University Press, 2017).
5. against evasive ambiguity.
[sam & paul: a lingering thread/threat for us is the insidious ways artists reify existing power dynamics by appealing to “aesthetic representation”—as in, appeals to “representation” often short-circuit critique, and evade justice and accountability in lieu of gestures towards “complexity” or “being nuanced” (zoé samudzi's phrase, "evansive ambiguity," is so good for this
This is the question that lingers throughout Schreuders’ oeuvre: how many years can one continue to be a bystander? For how many years can an identity quite clearly rooted in time and space, in trajectories of local-international Eurocolonial power and native dispossession, continue to be elusive? To be clear, white people’s self-flagellating guilt is unnecessary, and altogether abandoning this political confrontation is a cowardly evasion of social responsibility. But “ambiguity,” a word that appears frequently in press releases describing her exhibitions, is similarly evasive in its shrouding of conclusive historical phenomena and identity formations: in its positioning of settler colonization, apartheid, and the inheritance of legacies of violence as incommensurable mysteries whose revelations are impossibly unwieldy.
Zoé Samudzi, “Evasive Ambiguity: Claudette Schreuders’ ‘Doubles,’” ArtThrob, March 29, 2022.
[T]here is a great deal of truth in nuance and ambiguity. And yet we are living at a time when nuance and all the confused intentions, desires, and beliefs that go along with it are considered less a way of understanding human frailty than a failure of “accountability.”
Hilton Als, “Hannah Gadsby’s Song of the Self,” The New Yorker, July 22, 2019.
A project was said to “ask questions about” or “draw attention to” a topic, without any obligation to formulate conclusions or provide an easily digestible message. With hindsight, we can see that the nonlinearity of digital hypertext and poststructuralism cut two ways: On the one hand, it helped to dismantle master narratives; on the other, it produced an excess of information that was difficult, if not impossible, to meaningfully grasp.
Claire Bishop, “Information Overload,” Artforum, April 2023.
I argue that neoliberal aesthetics is the commitment to reifying the imagination of financial capitalism by denying all other forms of imagination, via a practice that replicates the structure (violence), through the transfer of risk (the process of subcontracting) as representation—under the structure and guise of aesthetic production. In addition, in neoliberal aesthetics, I argue that the body of the other is represented to make the process of violence visible, but the circulation of this racialized hypervisibility exists to normalize and surveil the violence. The racialized body becomes the ‘raw material’ that labors for and simultaneously is situated as the site for the artist to work through the violence of neoliberal capitalism.
Eunsong Kim, "Neoliberal Aesthetics: 250cm Line Tattooed on 6 Paid People," Lateral 4, no. 1 (May 2015).
6. still and still moving.
T. S. Eliot, "East Coker" from Four Quartets.
The bodies are in motion. The gestures disclose what is at stake––the matter of life returns as an open question...How can I live? I want to be free. Hold on.
Saidiya V. Hartman, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval (New York; London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2019).
Screenshots from Netflix documentary series The Playbook, 2020. Featuring Doc Rivers (top two) & Dawn Staley (bottom two).
Screenshots from Netflix series Bloodhounds (사냥개들), 2023.
sam chan is thinking about blueprints and being in trouble. they are also asia art archive's communications associate.
paul c. fermin is managing editor of asia art archive.
Banner illustration: Jocelin Kee.