Blackpentecostal Breath

An excerpt from Blackpentecostal Breath: The Aesthetics of Possibility, which was published by Fordham University Press in October 2016.

Stories of escape and flight from circum-Atlantic enslavement are numerous. Too numerous, in fact, to recount here. Yet in each instance, in each retelling, is movement emerging from plurality, from the irreducibility of otherwise possibilities. One such movement is the excitement, frustration, exacerbation internal to the narrative that the actor recounts for readers. How one felt. What one thought on the varied routes to flight, the many highways and byways, the hidings and showing forths. The final arrival, relief. All this in these narratives, fugitive stories, about the capacity for producing justice and liberation by stealing oneself away. But there is otherwise movement irreducibly in such narratives, movement of—for example—the incitement to excitement, frustration, or exacerbation the narrator wants to produce for readers. Does the reader hear the rustling of grass underfoot, the sounds of ship whistles, of whipped flesh? Does the reader see the muddy passageways, the swamps? Does the reader smell the sweaty flesh absconding? All this is one excess of the writing, an excess written into the writing, an excess about desiring for the reader to understand something about the peculiar—the peculiarly violent—institution. Such doubled movement written into and as the text announces the excessive possibility of otherwise, that such otherwise possibilities by elaborating upon the various remains, the various excesses yet to be elaborated.

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.

Writing of heart-rending shrieks during various productions of brutal violence hits at the necessity of air and its obstruction for the furtherance of the peculiar institution. Heart-rending shrieks issue forth from the spectacular performances of violation and violence, and following Saidiya Hartman, we must think about the necessity of breathing, of breath, of air, in otherwise than these spectacularized instances. What do air, breath, and breathing have to do with black performance, with Blackpentecostal aesthetics?

Breathing, like the picking up of sticks in woods explored in Peter Linebaugh’s work, is not new. But to keep breathing, like picking up sticks—because of the imposition of theological-philosophical reasoning and understanding; because of the imposition of juridical-ecclesial mode of thinking the human, the individual—such performances of breathing and gathering of sticks became fugitive acts. Picking up sticks was not always illegal; Forests were not always enclosed land. This was a form of life, social form, that privileged holding land in common. What befell this already existent social form, this form of life, was law stating that practices that had already been performed—commoning—were now, because of the random declaration, acts of criminality. This criminality did not create the social form but attempted to control and repress it, to harness and exploit this already existing social form for use in new modalities of juridical repression and control.

Yet, for Nimi Wariboko, the ongoing emergence of the new is what constitutes what he calls the “pentecostal principle.” In The Pentecostal Principle: Ethical Methodology in New Spirit, he describes it as “the capacity to begin,” that it is a “demand of a new beginning.” But what this demand is grounded in is a presumption of linear time, of western time, as the movement from past to present to future in a smooth transition and progression. “If it is a matter of time, then it is all about the future,” is the manifestation, the coming into being of the new. But Blackpentecostal aesthetics resists the conceptualization of the purely new, of western time’s forward propulsion. Blackpentecostal aesthetics, rather than a turn to the new, is a production of the otherwise, and shows the sending forth of otherwise possibilities already enacted, already here. So we turn, again, to the picking up of sticks.

Groups such as the Levellers and Diggers in 17th Century England were formed after such newly defined criminality, and were gathering in order to enact modes of sociality—to keep the land common and available to all. And this newly formed grouping, this mode of being together, was grounded in their coming together in the service of old, already existing, social forms. These groups were new only insofar as they emerged to rise to the occasion of contending against the idea that what they’d already been was in need of eradication. If criminal, if a problem for thought, this concept would be true only insofar as preexisting social forms made it difficult for new juridical-ecclesial repression and control to be imposed without resistance. And it is only thus that violence befalls.

This brief beginning excursus informs how I consider Blackpentecostalism and the blackness that is foundational for such a concept. The very idea that juridical violence of western civilization has the capacity to create blackness—and all its attendant deformational, creative potentialities and polarities—is undone by attending to Blackpentecostal performance. Western theology-philosophy has been an unrelenting and incessant drive to repress creative potentia and kinesthesia of blackness because such potentia and kinesthesia are the necessary interruption and disruption of such possibility. To breathe within this western theological-philosophical epistemology, from within the zone of blackness, from within the zone of Blackpentecostalism, is to offer a critical performative intervention into the western juridical apparatus of violent control, repression, and yes, premature death. Thus, attending to the ways air, breath, and breathing are aestheticized are intentionally elaborating for one that would notice.

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.

One can only imagine, for example, the compression in chest Harriet Jacobs endured in the “loophole of retreat,” in the crawlspace above her grandmother’s dwelling. With dimensions of only nine feet long, seven feet wide, and three feet high at the tall end, the capacities for breathing deeply, fully, satisfyingly were likely to have been compromised by such compressed space, sharing air with rats and mice. Such compression of space likewise produced an otherwise temporality wherein hearing, wherein listening, became heightened. Jacobs could faintly see her children playing outside in the dwelling through cracks in the structure. But as seeing was most obstructed, Jacobs relied on hearing them just beyond the crawlspace outside playing and speaking. All she had to do was keep on breathing.

Or one could imagine, as another example, the varied breathing patterns of the many people that escaped enslavement with the guidance of Harriet Tubman. We know, for example, that she sang to her fellow travelers in the woods in order to announce to them that the paths were clear. Tubman’s travelers listened to the enunciative displacement of air, displacement as her voice, in order to know it was indeed her vocalizing, her timbre, her tone. They listened to air’s displacement, in other words, to know that her flesh was present. The aestheticization of the entry into and out of the flesh of air, of breath, as necessary for fugitive flight.

Or, one could even imagine the changes in breathing for Olaudah Equiano just moments before receiving manumission papers that would, in law, free him from enslavement. Did his breathing become perhaps labored, shallow, faint, nervous, flights of butterflies in his stomach, tightness in chest anticipatory? All this because of his wanting to seize hope for a future, but considering that anything was, yet and still, possible? Did the breathing, in other words, come to match the intensity of emotion and feeling that was no doubt occurring during those moments? The reader of his narrative, no doubt, breathed heavy and deep and sighed and felt exasperated throughout the duration of the text.

In each instance, what goes unremarked—what we might almost (but not) consider marginal to the retelling—is the way one had to keep on breathing, panting, for such a narrative occurrence. Narratives of escape, collectively, are simply one figuration of the ways in which air, breath, and breathing are important considerations for black performance. There are certainly other instances, other stagings, other spaces and “texts” from which emerge the possibility for such analysis. Breathing, I mean to say, was integral though not generally the matter, the materiality, of narrative performance. Yet it is there, was there, in all its enunciative force. And enunciation is the precise word for what I attempt to consider here.

From the Latin ex- meaning out and nuntius meaning messenger, enunciation at base is about an irreducible showing forth and making apparent of one that would perform, or act, in the world. What happens when we bring enunciation close to, make the concept rub up against fugitivity, two terms moving seemingly in antithetical directions? The fugitivity of escape as the showing forth of the “out messenger,” the one that carries a word, a plea, a praise, a prayer, a psalm. This messenger, this fugitive messenger in blackness, this messenger carrying the word of blackness, releases oneself out into the world, in plainclothes, hidden view. And such releasing becomes the grounds from which to be enfleshed anew, to announce an otherwise desire than what is normative. The fugitive enacts by enunciative force, by desire, by air, by breath, by breathing. Breath and breathing of air, in other words, not only make possible but sustain such movement.

So. Pause. Deeply breathe, in. Now slowly, out.

Air. It is an object that is shared, that is common, that is necessary for each movement, each act, each scene—whether of subjection or celebration. Air is an irreducible admixture of nitrogen, oxygen, other minute atmospheric gases and particulate matter that enters the flesh through the process of breathing. This process of breathing can be, certainly has been, is and will be aestheticized, performed. Children play breathing games, seeing who can hold one’s breath longest; singers breath to hit high and low notes, to climb and descend scales; people dance and run, sleep and snore. All necessitate the performance, the process, of breathing.

Air is an object held in common, an object that we come to know through a collective participation within it as it enters and exits flesh. The process by which we participate in this common object, with this common admixture, not only must be thought about but must be consumed and expelled through repetition in order to think. The always more than double gesture of inhalation and exhalation is a matter of grave concern given the overwhelming presence of air as shared object, the overwhelming presence of breathing as shared, common performance. In each movement of dilation is a displacement of one kind of matter in the space and plane of another. To fill lungs with air is to displace the carbonate matter that was previously within. To write narratives of flight is to displace the common conceptions of the human, the subject, the object. Blackpentecostalism, I argue, is grounded in this process of movement and displacement, movement as displacement. Of material, of flesh, of concepts. So we turn to instances of breathing as an intentionally aesthetic production, a mode of life, a politics of avoidance.

If there was a movement that “began” in Los Angeles on Bonnie Brae Street in 1906, which would eventually be called Pentecostalism, this movement would always and everywhere be claimed by what Laura Harris calls the “aesthetic sociality of blackness”:

The aesthetic sociality of blackness is an improvised political assemblage that resides in the heart of the polity but operates under its ground and on its edge. It is not a re-membering of something that was broken, but an ever-expanding invention. It develops by way of exclusion but it is not exclusionary, particularly since it is continuously subject to legitimated, but always incomplete, exploitation.

Blackpentecostalism is an enactment of this aesthetic sociality. Blackpentecostalism is the performance of plural possibilities for otherwise, is the enactment of irreducible openness, the experience of displacement as common, the performance of displacement as a critique of the violent modernity that produced violent possession, colonialism, enslavement. Blackpentecostalism is the ongoing emergence of otherwise than what Frank B. Wilderson III calls “spatial and temporal coherence.” Blackpentecostalism is not about human possibility but the possibilities that exist in plurality that have been rejected from the zone of the human. This ongoing emergence of otherwise is not, in the first instance, out of duress and violence, but out of and grounded in love. Prompted by sounds, such as those of rushing mighty winds, Blackpentecostalism compels the analysis of the ongoing necessity for escape as one condition of emergence for the perpetual reconfiguration—and, with hope, the dismantling of and building something otherwise—of normative, violative modes of repressive and regulatory apparatuses.

Blackpentecostalism is ever expansive, emerging through having certain aesthetic religious practices excluded from the categories of the “mainline,” excluded because these practices were considered excessive and discardable, practices that were obstructions for achieving pure ethological-philosophical thought, pure theological-philosophical reflection. Yet these practices, these aesthetic sacred performances were always critical analyses of and performed positions against the categorical distinctions of theology and philosophy that would come to define normative religious practice. Blackpentecostalism, though excluded from the mainstream, was ever inclusive of those that would be excluded. It is an egalitarian mode of Spirit indwelling, wherein that which those filled with the Spirit have is immediately given away to others through aesthetic proclamation, through linguistic rupture that announces and enunciates expelled sociality. The sound of violent wind is matched with, but also exceeded by, an intensive, intentional, and pullulating capacity for otherwise sociality. And what is held and given away, what is involved in reciprocity of gift and exchange, is air through the performance of breathing, that which animates the flesh and makes it move. The energy of Pentecost found in the biblical Luke-Acts 2 narrative was carried into, and given away within, the early twentieth century by an intergenerational, interreligious, multigender people, an enactment of a spiritual “motley crew.”

The aesthetic production of breath in Blackpentecostalism is what I index as black pneuma, the capacity for the plural movement and displacement of inhalation and exhalation to enunciate life, life that is exorbitant, capacious, and fundamentally social, though it is life that is structured through and engulfed by brutal violence. This life, life in blackness, otherwise black life, exceeds the very capacities of seemingly gratuitous violence. Breath is not only important but also holy, and this holiness is not reducible to confessions of faith or anything that could simply be called “religious.” Analyzing the Blackpentecostal tendency for praying and preaching to be inclusive of, and often end with, “whooping”—the speaking of phrase melodically, with excitement, usually breaking into loud exclamations and declarations repetitiously; the disruption of air through intentional, intense breathing—will yield robust analyses of liberal concepts of subjectivity and of the body. It’s all about breathing.