A theorist who left behind a position as a preacher in the Blackpentecostal church returns to its practices for the potency of their critique
In his work-in-progress, Blackpentecostal Breath: The Aesthetics of Possibility, Ashon Crawley draws on his research in black studies, performance theory and sound studies, black feminist theory, and queer theology to investigate the relationship of aesthetic productions to modes of collective intellectual practice.
I’d like you to start with your book title: Blackpentecostal Breath: The Aesthetics of Possibility. It’s so rich—when I read it, my brain starts riffing: breath, prayer, the communal, the possible, beauty, collective desire. Can you riff on it for us a little?
The best way I can think to reply to this is to talk about the personal. I grew up in a Blackpentecostal household in northern New Jersey. Both my father and mother are clergy and at one time, my brother and I were as well, all in the Church of God in Christ, the largest Blackpentecostal denomination in the world. In the church, I was a choir director, an organist (the Hammond B-3 organ is a vital instrument in the place of Blackpentecostal aesthetics, a very undertheorized instrument to date) and was on the verge of beginning what would have been a long, and perhaps very unsatisfying career as a preacher. I grew up very committed to the church, loving everything about the world even in its insularity, even in its enclosed, peculiar nature. In fact, we relished being “a peculiar people.” Folks that did not have to abide by the strictures of the normative world, folks that repudiated going to the movies, drinking alcohol, and smoking. It was, of course, a world with very rigid notions of sex and sexuality. However, there was much rumor and gossip that proliferated in this life world, lots of hushed conversations: so-and-so had a child out of wedlock; so-and-so is funny. Sex and sexuality were both central to the rumor and gossip economy but were also rhetorically categorically placed on the outside of the lifeworld. Without belaboring the point, once I accepted my own queerness and began to, in earnest, interrogate theologies of sex and sexuality that were repressive and diminished folks’ capacities for flourishing and vitality, I left the church almost wholesale.
I kept listening to black gospel music, and still do listen to that genre more than any other. And this wasn’t just because I enjoyed it as a “style,” which is a term used almost always to denigrate and discard the radical potentiality and edge of the music. I enjoyed it, and enjoy it still, because the music still moves me, still resonates with me, still causes me at times to cry, still compels me deep in my flesh, still vibrates. And I began to wonder years ago: If it were possible to still be moved by the music, and still be moved by the aesthetic practices of speaking in tongues, or listening to the Hammond B-3, or hearing the Saints clap their hands and yelp and scream and cry out in ecstatic joy—if it were possible for the sonic force of this lifeworld to move me still—could such movement force me back into theologically violent, homophobic, sexist doctrinal thought? I began to wonder, and try to figure out in earnest, what was the relationship between aesthetic practice and thought. I was fearful that I would somehow be moved to a sort of repentance, to begin again to consent to theologies of violence. But it wasn’t until I read folks like Hortense Spillers with her notion of vestibularity and Saidiya Hartman and her concept of terror, it wasn’t until I read folks like Nathaniel Mackey and how he meditates on the remains of perfume even after the fact of broken bottles, until after I read folks like Fred Moten and his lingering on black performance, that I recalibrated concerns about Blackpentecostal aesthetics to ask, also, what can such a world, what can such aesthetic practices make possible.
Once I opened myself up, really made myself vulnerable, to the capacity for Blackpentecostal aesthetics to offer something to the world in excess of the theological rhetoric from which we typically think such practices, such performances emerge, I found an entirely otherwise modality of engagement with the very fact of my own existence. That is, I began to gain clarity and insight into things I did not at one time consider to be intellectual. I did not at one time think whooping—the intentioned elaboration and exaggeration of breath—during prayer and preaching were “intellectual,” only “fleshly” practices. As fleshly and anti-intellectual, such things were at one time unnecessary for pure theological reflection. But today, I’m totally cool with such practices being excessive for pure theological reflection because I think the possibility for pure theological—and philosophical—thought emerges by repressing, by gathering up and discarding, fleshly practices. And this is no more true for whooping than it is for shouting (which is not, curiously enough, vocalization and screaming, but is dance; think of shouting as part of the Ring Shout tradition); and this is no more true for whooping and shouting than it is for speaking in tongues.
What became clear to me is that each of these aesthetic practices is interconnected by breathing, but breath goes so undertheorized in much work. So in the book, I intentionally analyze breath as an aesthetic intellectual social practice. And after breath, I consider shouting, singing and speaking in tongues. In each case, I am simply asking: what can these aesthetics—discardable in the theological-philosophical thought of modernity, with its insistence on categorical distinction, distinction that racializes, genders, and sexes aesthetic practices such that the behaviors and performance I analyze are always already excessive because they are always already black—what can these aesthetic practices make possible as a critique of the curiously violent and violative normative world?
There are Otherwise ways to think temporality. There are Otherwise ways to think the concept of fleshly reality. The Otherwise, as the elaboration of the alternative, presumes that radically different relations have and do already exist. The black radical tradition is one space where I find the operation of the Otherwise. And in my own research, Blackpentecostalism also produces—while it is produced by—the Otherwise, the alternative. As such, it is a critique of the given, a critique of the normative.
I want to ask you about vibration, the way it holds both sameness and difference: movement and echo; improvisation and pattern; invention and the “ain’t nothing but.” There’s a productive tension between those two things in your work, it seems to me: I’m thinking especially of the wonderful opening paragraph of “Between 4’52””, where you move from roughness and difference to smoothness and repetition. It makes me think of jazz, and the relationship between theme and variation, but I think there’s more going on here. What’s happening with vibration in your work—vibration as resistance, as relation, as social life?
Vibration is a fact of matter. What I mean is that everything vibrates, whether at rapid or low frequencies. There is nothing—to my knowledge at least—that does not vibrate, that does not move, that does not make itself felt, known, in the world—this one or others—except through the difference that vibration requires. So vibratory frequency is something I constantly obsess over: what does it mean that I vibrate, that my computer vibrates, that water vibrates, that the earth vibrates? What does it mean that the things we experience through sense perception are sensed because of the different wavelengths and frequencies at which they vibrate? For me, to know that vibration is a fact of matter, means that everything is sounding out, everything is—to invoke Adriana Cavarero a bit—convoking, everything is sounding out with the assumption that some other will detect such vibration. If matter vibrates as a fact of existence, then all matter exists in an open-ended antiphonal relation of desire. All matter exists in such a way as to require being detected by something otherwise than itself to close the loop.
Think of the central nervous system and how it is discontinuous. Susan Buck-Morss has an excellent essay about Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” that really set me on a path to think rigorously about the central nervous system in flesh matter. Our sense perception of the world is grounded in the fact of our flesh’s discontinuous nature: nerve endings are detached and information must leap, must jump, must produce choreographies of encounter with other nerve endings; our central nervous system’s discontinuity is what allows us to feel, to sense the world. This is all about vibration, about how things move on and off each other, about how matter approaches and is repelled. It seems almost silly to say that we never touch anything, but we don’t. Electrons repel other electrons such that whatever it is we “touch” is held in abeyance. Vibration, then, is what allows us to sense that we are, in fact, touching, though such a fact is really only ever a metaphor.
And it turns out that metaphor is important in ways your question points out: sameness and difference held, contained, in the concept of vibration. The productive tension you mention is a fact of matter, is the way we perceive the world through the configuration of senses we have. Vibration is grounded in the perception of otherwise, the perception of alternative agitation, the perception of difference that is always and everywhere around us.
I’m thinking of your essay “That There Might Be Queer Sound” here, and the way it brings relation and vibration together against a lethal normativity. It seems to go back to the idea of an alternate temporality, a gently vibrating stillness: the queer couple in “the thicket of the normal,” as you write, “biding time.”
I think it is important that we use our senses—in whatever configuration they emerge for us individually—to consider the Otherwise as always just beyond the horizon. One thing that has always bothered me is the concern about the relation of one’s confessed or hidden identity to the art they produce. Again, there were all sorts of rumors and gossip circulating about the secret and sinful lives of musicians and choir directors in my conservative Blackpentecostal church growing up and I’d always wonder what the identity of the musician meant for the music made. A more general way to ask: Is a sound queer because the musician—the singer, songwriter, instrumentalist—is queer, whether out or closeted? The more I thought about this set of concerns, the more they seemed to miss the point altogether, because these questions emerge by grounding the concept of individual identity as that which is “real” and not something that is irreducibly on the move, irreducibly vibrational. Whatever we have of “identity,” it is always in flux. To ask about the relation of sound to one’s identity seems to reproduce the logic of theological-philosophical categorical distinction.
My students recently read José Esteban Muñoz’s Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics because I wanted us to think rigorously about the generative ways one can inhabit normative worlds while also, through performance, critiquing the very normativity that binds. What I enjoyed about rereading Muñoz’s work was the ways he forced me to consider, yet and all over again, the ways I tried to inhabit the homophobic and sexist world of Blackpentecostalism, given the rumor and gossip that made it apparent that the official doctrinal position on the sinful nature of queerness wasn’t binding. And noticing such clandestine, hushed, in some ways invisible behavior gave me desire to know such life for myself. And I began to wonder—and Blackpentcostal Breath attempts to speak to this—where does the knowledge of disidentification emerge from, and how does one know to seek out disidentificatory possibility? In another register, this question could be asked using Fred Moten’s concept: where does one receive a knowledge of freedom from, having never had it? Either knowledge of disidentification, which is only ever the vibration of freedom and liberatory praxis, is possible even in the most rigid and conservative of spaces, or disidentificatory, liberating praxis exists otherwise than through empiricism and what is called, without much rigor, “experience.” Or even further still, perhaps experience and knowledge are given in otherwise modalities, on lower and higher frequencies than is generally detected. Perhaps, in other words, we have to go to the excess, that which exceeds the boundaries and strictures of normativity, perhaps we need an otherwise way to detect sensuality in order to think the possibility of disidentification, to think the possibility of liberatory praxis, of freedom.
This recalls Baraka’s omm bomm ba boom, a vibration that’s sensed when you say it, felt right in the lips. And the way Baraka’s poem (“Wise I”), which you quote in “Against Water Shutoffs and Occupation: The Omm Bomm Ba Boom,” takes the form of a traditional Gospel lyric. When Baraka says “they ban your/ own bomm ba boom/ you in deep deep/ trouble,” we understand this “trouble” as historical and collective. The omm bomm ba boom vibrates through time and space—down the generations, and between people. Like your work, it invokes community.
Each time I think about vibration and sociality, I keep thinking of Michel Foucault’s interview, published in English in 1981, “Friendship As a Way of Life.” In the interview, two things stand out to me. Of friends, he says, “They have to invent, from A to Z, a relationship that is still formless, which is friendship: that is to say, the sum of everything through which they can give each other pleasure,” and that “What we must work on, it seems to me, is not so much to liberate our desires but to make ourselves infinitely more susceptible to pleasure.” Both these are very important to me because susceptibility implies a kind of vulnerability, an openness, a belief in existence as radically undone, unhinged, unruly. It casts existence as interstitial, as a circuit always waiting to be closed. This closure comes through friendship, which is another way to say sociality, another way to think vibration. The inventive impulse of friendship is in that it is not institutionally informed. People entering into such a relation must be committed to figuring out what that mode of existence will be, how they will behave, what rules to establish by which to abide. Isn’t the establishment, the dance and play of sociality, grounded in vibration, in how we move with and against each other? Doesn’t such vibration open us up to disidentificatory fugitive choreographic-sonic force? Seems to me that friendship is one such thing we are constantly after in the Otherwise, a mode of constituting otherwise ways of being in the world.