Lonely Letters

A conversation between Ashon Crawley and Elleza Kelley

Ashon Crawley’s writing leaps and bends gracefully from mysticism to Kanye West, from quantum mechanics to the antiphony of “do it for the vine.” He is an associate professor of religious studies and African-American and African studies at the University of Virginia and the author of Blackpentecostal Breath: The Aesthetics of Possibility (Fordham University Press). The following is a compilation of small letters, written to each other over email, that discuss his latest book, The Lonely Letters (Duke University Press), “otherwise possibility,” and the ongoing radical practices of everyday black life — a life of making.


Ashon T. Crawley, The Lonely Letters. Duke University Press Books, 2020. 280 pages.
When we started writing these lonely-letters letters, we had no idea that we were entering an unforeseen period of extended collective “isolation.” We had no idea that a kind of literal loneliness would become the condition of these letters’ composition. That letters, emails, texts, FaceTimes, Zoom meetings, and phone calls would constitute the very limit of our intimacy — at once a profound virtual boundary and a profound virtual togetherness. After the last email was sent, we went back to texting, as we usually do (we are friends and we live several states away from each other). The content of the letters bled into our text messages (we both have a tendency to spill with our words, everything blurring together all the time). Ashon texted: “i’m not lonely because i feel empty or lacking or bereft. i feel loneliness because i feel full and abundance and like i’m overflowing, like i have so much i want to give and pour into someone. kinda like sylvia wynter talking about her grandmother giving away some of her dresses to poorer children, her thinking about it as a desire to share happiness as existential justice.” The Lonely Letters pours into us when we need it most. Its overflow does not drown us but rather keeps us afloat in times of crisis. It is so timely, so fitting, so instructive for this unprecedented moment of contemplation, of isolation, of bearing witness to the undeniable wreckage of capitalism, of the urgency to imagine new worlds.
 
 

 

Elleza Kelley: Let’s begin with a meandering question about love, which is so important to your work and methodology. I like to tell the story of how we met. That’s kind of a love story, a story of friendship love. You were a TA in Fred Moten’s class, and I was an unruly freshman in college learning how to really read for the first time. After class, we used to smoke cigarettes and talk about our crushes. In the TNI classic “Crushed . . .” Tiana Reid writes about “the promise of crushing’s structure of feeling, its unfinished emergence.” Of her latest crush, she writes, “She is a dream; I hope I never know her.” Love letters, a form within a form, have always interested me, particularly because they don’t always require a response. I like to think of love letters as a possible (perhaps “otherwise”) form that criticism could take; declarations of love are self-reflexive and emotional and subjective and questioning and vulnerable — all things I think are sorely lacking from “acceptable” critical procedure. The Lonely Letters feels like the offering of an opening, the space inside of an embrace that holds but does not enclose — in the book, you offer love letters between “fictional characters,” from “A” to “Moth,” and love letters to black study, and black study enacted through love, where sociality is about declaration and intimacy as entanglement, rather than exchange or transaction or reciprocity. TLL takes love seriously as a radical political, philosophical, and social practice, but also an aesthetic practice, a literary and critical practice. Is there a way to think of the love letter as offering something more specific than the epistolary? How does love function in your work? 
 
Ashon Crawley: One of my favorite definitions for love is from the movie An Oversimplification of Her Beauty (Terence Nance, 2013), which says love is: an art form slightly removed from its intended context. I think of love as being at the edges of consciousness, a kind of unsourced resonance that, once there, ends up being gathered, as a rain storm, in mind as dream, as pleasure, as delightful. But like a dream, it can be fuzzy and easily forgotten once one awakens from sleep. One has to have a sense for it, has to be open to it still lingering after the moment of being awakened. You have to trace what happened in the dream by the mood it leaves with you, by the mood that remains, and mood becomes the occasion for movement and withdrawal into the thought of the dream. 
 
That’s love. 
 
The story of how we met is about love and friendship, about love as friendship, about love in friendship. We met and made space for each other, became refuge for one another, especially you for me when I was trying to figure out what the affection of that particular one dude that’d smoke with me, with us, outside that library, was for me. Friendship is what allowed me to be sustained, it is what allowed me a space of reprieve, the capacity to breathe. 
 
That’s love.
 
So when constructing The Lonely Letters, it was important for me to think about love letters and the way, in general, responses are not required and certainly cannot and should not be coerced, because that is the antithesis of love. In this way, love is the reckless abandonment of writing that hopes for but does not require response; love is a sense for solicitation towards reply, a desire to be in ongoing conversation. So though one cannot compel a reply to love, to a letter, love is the practice of responding to the irresistible, to the situation, with delight and joy and enthusiasm, a kind of ecstatics towards relation. The love letter allows me a kind of space to think about interrelation and connection but also disconnection.
 
I have sent letters that have been refused; I have sent messages to which the recipient does not reply. And it hurts each and every time, because it feels so heavy and dense and weighty, the wait, the tarrying, and then the lingering so much so that you eventually realize that there will be no reply to come, that delight and joy and pleasure and enthusiasm of the social world they made, were making, with you could not move them towards ecstatics as reply. It’s heartbreaking. The love letter lets me talk about the kind of solicitation theory desires but also the kind of material practice to change our world that the letter hopes is ineluctable. It’s what Fred Moten says about music: “That’s what the music practices: a noncoercive rearrangement of desire that moves — in a way that somehow obliterates the distinctions between being made to move and wanting to move and wanting to be made to move — in that gap, that break, which is a field of feel in dance, in which the representative itself is negated by way of an overwhelming affirmation.” This is not, as you note, about exchange or transaction. It is about making, making something together, being made and unmade, being done and undone and learning and growing and moving together. This is the otherwise than the political economy of extraction and exchange, it is the practice of entanglement, the meeting up with your stardust in this world with hope. 
 
EK: That beautiful quote you share from Fred reminds me how much you think and work across mediums, that “noncoercive rearrangement,” and arrangement more generally, are a mode of “making” — I’m thinking here of Hortense Spillers talking about Maud Martha’s “gifted kind of ‘making’ that turns the inner to the outer.” Making and unmaking are how we get to otherwise. It is something we make. You have an extensive visual practice that includes (and often brings together) multimedia painting, drawing, augmented reality, dance, and sound, among other things. The sonic is especially important — you’re a musician and you also curate these wonderful events that merge food, music, musician, audience, sound, and movement to think about the haptic, the sensory, the collective, the spatiality and temporality of the black Pentecostal tradition. But equally important is your visual art, which is featured both in Blackpentecostal Breath and in TLL. Both books sort of move fluidly between mediums, forms, and materials to get at a kind of aesthetic sensibility that is not beholden to taxonomy or, as you write, “the categorical distinctions of disciplinary knowledge.” It spills out and over borders and boundaries. Can you speak a little bit about your art practice(s) and how they underwrite and animate TLL, specifically, but also your work more broadly? 
 
AC: One title of a book I love, a book I’ve read most of, is Heidegger’s On the Way to Language, and I love it because of the way it describes a kind of movement, a kind of withdrawal and drawing, a kind of choreosonic practice — choreography and movement together with sound and enunciation — that language takes. And I like the title because it tells me something about my own work, work that is deeply communal and engaging in the practices that have formed me. All this to say, I think my work has always been on the way to art practice, a kind of performative utterance that had to take the choreosonic, the audiovisual, the choreovisual as the grounds from which could emerge another way to think the concepts I want to think about otherwise. 
 
You mention the two sound events I curated, sound events that were not limited to but used sound as the grounding for gathering, the practices of listening and hearing and sensing vibration to consider the full range of affectional, sensual registers in which our flesh inhabits the world. The first event was in April 2017 in Los Angeles at Human Resources LA, a cavernous space. We projected video of lyrics on one wall, sat in the space and sang songs you’d hear during a Friday-night Blackpentecostal church service and clapped; there was a drummer and Hammond organist and there was soul food — fried fish and fried chicken, collard greens and macaroni and cheese — being prepared in the space. The desire was to consider the ways religiosity is a sensual experience and the ways all our senses are engaged in the practice of the sacred. A dear friend attended and said, this was your book performed. That was the best thing anyone could’ve said. There were so many folks there from various religious, spiritual, and atheistic positions, and even the ones that did not participate in the singing were able to talk and eat after the singing finished. There was space for everyone, and it felt like a good way to think about how we can be together in our differences. 
 
The second event was much like the first, in April 2019, and it, too, was about attempting the mood and movement and feeling of being together with folks that are different from you. Can we make worlds together?
 
This question of making is what animates my choreosonic, audiovisual arts practice. I want to make things through shouting, through clapping, through getting my flesh messy in order to attempt something of the feeling of spirit I’d have when I was in the Blackpentecostal churches that formed me. But because I practice blackqueerness as a form of relation, as an ethic of care, those same communities exclude me from the domain of the proper, because I am now a self-avowed and unrepentant sinner according to those doctrines and theologies. And I say I practice blackqueerness as opposed to saying I identify as a queer person, because I think what blackqueerness is, what it calls us to, is deep relation, a relation of refusing to relinquish our hold and care for and with one another, that is not grounded in gender identities and sexual orientations but is grounded in a desire to tend to and be tender with one another, to practice justice and equity that is sometimes, very urgently, felt in the flesh. The church hates this, the multiple ways relationality and affect and erotics can go. It feels bad, feels terrible in my flesh, to be excluded and denounced by communities that have cared for me. And it feels terrible precisely because what they have gifted me is the capacity to be in relation, to be open, to be vulnerable to being moved. So their exclusion is antithetical to the ways they taught me to inhabit the world. So my choreosonic, audiovisual arts practice is a way to honor the worlds that made me possible but also attempts to think with blackqueer relationality as the grounds from which we can produce a more capacious and imaginative form of gathering with one another. 
 
EK: For me, black study (less often, Black Studies) is not merely a content shift but a formal and methodological shift. It is not merely centering a different “object of study” but theorizing and enacting how to do study differently. Your work is one of the most compelling contemporary examples of that, I think — it both marks and makes a shift, while constantly reminding us that black and indigenous and queer people (not just scholars) have been engaged in these modes of study, long before the existence of “the academy.” TLL is obviously even more formally experimental than BPB. What it allows for is a very fluid interdisciplinarity — one made possible by the conversation, the sociality, the intimate casualness of the letter. You move through and with the theological, the diaristic and vernacular, cultural criticism, and even the scientific. For example, you use metaphors — really, models — from physics to think about, among other things, the plurality of worlds and the Wynterian “overrepresentation” of “the white supremacist capitalist patriarchal world.” I’ve noticed in black studies recently a kind of turn towards the scientific and mathematical, in contrast to an earlier rejection and skepticism of these empirical domains. Though still very much a site of critique, these empirical fields and their languages are somehow operating to more productive ends for black studies right now. Can you speak a little to the attraction to, and usefulness of, quantum physics in TLL? Perhaps too in the context of theological ways of comprehending the world as substance, or object, or set, or episode, etc.? 
 
AC: The turn to quantum physics is really a desire to think about worlds and how we inhabit them and how all language is metaphor. So initially, I’d say that I didn’t want to use quantum physics metaphorically, but that was a deep imprecision on my part. What I was attempting to say, when I was initially reading folks like Einstein and Heisenberg, was that I wanted their theoretical language to do the same kind of work and thing I wanted the sound of the Hammond organ to do, or the feeling of speaking in tongues and what it does. What I meant is that the same sort of openness and vulnerability that is necessary for loving relationships to occur, to happen, the openness and vulnerability that is the foundation for friendship as a way of life, would have to be the same kind of openness and vulnerability in what is presumed to be the categorical distinction of scientific thought in order to achieve the kinds of theoretical thought exercises from which emerges quantum theory. I mean, cats and light as particles or waves and all of this described with language of the miraculous and the unbelievable. What I was noticing when I’d read these various scientific thinkers was that they had to be open and available to surprise and change and augmentation of thought, that they could not presume their already available knowledge would have the capacity to carry the things they were discovering. So for me, my turn to quantum physics as a metaphor, or as you say, as a model, is precisely because the link between thinking blackqueerness and blackpentecostalism and particle behavior is that we have to be open and available for surprise to happen, for things to occur that we did not think possible, a longwinded way to say otherwise possibility. 
 
I like to think about and with neutrinos a lot. They are these teeny tiny little things, such that the words teeny and tiny are misnomers of grand proportions. They are smaller than atoms, smaller than electrons and neutrons. One hundred trillion neutrinos pass through every square inch of earth, and our flesh, every second. We do not currently have the mental capacity to understand or comprehend that statement. But just because we cannot comprehend it doesn’t mean we do not feel it, the resonance of it, the power of it. These teeny tiny things are uninhibited by light and gravity, yet they make up most of what we can detect in the mysterious beyond that we call the universe. There is so much smallness that is the foundational building blocks for what we are, and yet with regard to that mysterious beyond, we are also teeny tiny things. This smallness gives me a sense of grounding in existential joy and pleasure and peace, because it means to me that even though what we feel is big to us — our happiness and delight and joy and love and heartbreak and sadness and bereavement — it is also so very small. Matter is such an ephemeral thing, and the material world helps me think the graveness, the gravity, of it all. So I turn to the scientific not to say it is the more precise and proper and correct way to think these thoughts, I am against a kind of scientization of thought that presumes science to be the antithesis of emotion because it is purportedly reasonable and objective and neutral and unbiased. No. I turn to this area to show how it, too, is culturally constructed and part of our social world and how we relate to one another; it gives me another kind of language to explore connection and affect and emotion and mood. I think this is what’s happening in black studies, this attempt to think with various purportedly neutral and empirical domains to illustrate the ways they have to be unmade, made otherwise, by minoritized knowledges.
 
EK: I love that proposition of openness and availability — to surprise, to what we don’t yet know how to think, how to comprehend. To what we are still moving towards (or “on the way to”), learning to learn to learn. I’m reminded of Ernst Bloch’s interest in “astonishment.” For José Muñoz, Bloch’s mode of astonishment “helps surpass the limitations of an alienating presentness and allows one to see a different time and place.” I love that openness, surprise, astonishment, and the capacity for nonexploitative, nonviolent, anti-colonial discovery are the ways to otherwise. Such an orientation is true for you, it seems, in so many of your everyday practices, in your call for us to “make art, find your joy.” On that note, before we conclude, would you mind sharing a little bit about your upcoming (and ongoing) projects?
 
AC: Beautiful, the idea and feel of astonishment, that we have to learn to learn to learn. It’s that ongoing process of being open and undone and available as a way of life, as the posture we practice daily. 
 
I’m working on a manuscript now, still in deep study, tentatively titled “Made Instrument,” which is about the Hammond organ and its popular usage in black churches. In this work, I’m specifically writing about the Hammond organ and how musicianship with this instrument produces modes of collective, improvisational thought and how the music heard in black churches is of an epistemological order. I’m also writing in a project that explores what I call the Black Radical Mystical Tradition. Building on Cedric Robinson’s Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition, I’m examining the radicalism internal to what we might think of as a European Mystical Tradition but also its delimitation as a problem of Western thought. And I’ve been expanding my art practice to integrate immersive reality like 3D, virtual reality, augmented reality, animation, sound design, and digital mapping.
 
And the projects are about outpouring, about contending with the ways blackness and blackqueerness and blackpentecostalism and life and love and birth and breath are about abundance, seeking refuge for that which will be outpoured, knowing that the refuge will be there, available, open, waiting. My work is about outpouring, about that which has been made available to me being made available as a general mode of relationality. Make art, find your joy. The practice and posture of outpouring.

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