Stolen Life

Stolen Life

by Fred Moten

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"Taken as a trilogy, consent not to be a single being is a monumental accomplishment: a brilliant theoretical intervention that might be best described as a powerful case for blackness as a category of analysis."—Brent Hayes Edwards, author of Epistrophies: Jazz and the Literary Imagination

In Stolen Life—the second volume in his landmark trilogy consent not to be a single being—Fred Moten undertakes an expansive exploration of blackness as it relates to black life and the collective refusal of social death. The essays resist categorization, moving from Moten's opening meditation on Kant, Olaudah Equiano, and the conditions of black thought through discussions of academic freedom, writing and pedagogy, non-neurotypicality, and uncritical notions of freedom. Moten also models black study as a form of social life through an engagement with Fanon, Hartman, and Spillers and plumbs the distinction between blackness and black people in readings of Du Bois and Nahum Chandler. The force and creativity of Moten's criticism resonate throughout, reminding us not only of his importance as a thinker, but of the continued necessity of interrogating blackness as a form of sociality.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822372028
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 07/26/2018
Series: consent not to be a single being
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 336
File size: 589 KB

About the Author

Fred Moten is Professor of Performance Studies at New York University and the author of Black and Blur and The Universal Machine, both also published by Duke University Press, and In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition.

Read an Excerpt


Knowledge of Freedom


At the beginning of In Praise of Nonsense: Kant and Bluebeard, Winfried Menninghaus calls our attention to an exemplary expression of sovereignty's ambivalence toward its own non-fullness. "'All the richness of the imagination,' [Immanuel] Kant cautions in the Critique of Judgment, 'in its lawless freedom produces nothing but nonsense.' Nonsense, then, does not befall the imagination like a foreign pathogen; rather, it is the very law of imagination's own 'lawlessness.' Kant therefore prescribes a rigid antidote: even in the field of the aesthetic, understanding must "severely clip the wings" of imagination and 'sacrifice ... some' of it."

The paralegal disturbs Kant, is anoriginal disturbance in Kant. Whatever violent overturning it enacts (however softly), whatever ante-invasive evasion it performs (however smoothly), was already online, as something there, then gone, exercising options that even the bloodiest constraint can neither liquidate nor reduce. Nonsense is fugitive presence. You could think its animated flesh, with and against Hannah Arendt's hard grain, as "the dark background of mere givenness," and as "the dark background of difference." Feel it get down right there, though it keeps on moving, right there, where difference and givenness are inseparable in never being one. Its diplopic print is not marked "before and after" but shows up as smudge, bend, ecstatic shift, common and impure. This recidivist fringe just won't act right no matter how much the power of judgment tries to make it "well behaved." Law enforcement, in whatever exclusionary attempt to ensure equilibrium, belatedly responds to what shows up as (de)generative dehiscence requiring suture and irregular wholeness in need of incision.

Note that the very image of imagination is more and less than one. Phantasie, in its anarchic productivity, ludic, labored, hanging at the corner of the ordinary and the merely (given, phonetic, culinary, gestural, cultural, sensual), is shadowed by Einbildungskraft, the jurisprudential faculty's tasteful, emphatically regulatory straight edge and end. Menninghaus argues that for Kant, Phantasie, "imagination in its pure form — which is by the same token its vitium — produces 'tumultuous derangements' that shatter the 'coherence which is necessary for the very possibility of experience.'" Judgments of taste, in their unifying and developmental power, defy tumult in the interest of that possibility. But if Kant prescribes what Menninghaus calls a "politics of curtailment" of the imagination which, in its pure productivity, sunders every enclosure and maddens every work, infusing them with the anoriginal, dispossessive, recollective impurity that is its dispossessive own, he does so by acknowledging the prior resistance (unruly sociality, anarchic syntax, extrasensical poetics) to that politics that calls it into being.

Menninghaus's work is structured by the revelation of this ambivalence in Kant that can be said to disrupt and appose origin in general. I want to consider this necessarily irregular opening of the regulative and to think it in relation to Kant's deployment of race as the exemplary regulative and/or teleological principle. As Robert Bernasconi's work in particular shows, Kant uses race and the raced figure to ground the distinction between natural history — the production and discovery of purposive and singular, if internally hierarchized creation — and natural description's cataloging of a diverse set of observed natural facts potentially attributable to different origins. The regulative discourse on the aesthetic that animates Kant's critical philosophy is inseparable from the question of race as a mode of conceptualizing and regulating human diversity, grounding and justifying inequality and exploitation, as well as marking the limits of human knowledge through the codification of quasitran-scendental philosophical method, which is Kant's acknowledged aim in the critical philosophy. Similarly, the racial and racist conceptualization and, therefore, regulation of blackness is inseparable from its naming, so that the precritical impulse to categorize and catalog supposedly natural facts, above which critical philosophy would rise, or over which it would conceptually leap in its use of teleological principle, casts a sleepy and dogmatic shadow over that which newly awakened criticality is supposed to illuminate. What if the ones who are so ugly that their utterances must be stupid are never far from Kant's mature and critical thoughts? What if they, or something they are said and made to bear alone, are the fantastical generation of those thoughts? It is as if the exclusive property they are and have is the generative facticity that constitutes and solicits fact and grasp, having and being. It is as if that darkness, which gives and takes away the given in and as differentiation without beginning or end, could only be contained if it were yoked to a set of phenotypical particularities whose arbitrary collection and categorization were shamefully deployed by the one whose theorization of how to know better should have allowed and required him to know better. Wholly without standing, the ones who are said and made to bear alone that which is so essential as to be unbearable alone stand in for a general improvisation, a practice of dispossession, that critical philosophy must now put in its proper place. This is how the radically and essentially improper — a giving of givenness, a handing over of being-handed — is brutally emplotted and enclosed, constantly submitted to a torturously accountable category and its imperatives; this is how, along with that local habitation, the unnameable comes to bear the imposition of a name. This nominative, genetic, historicogeographic enforcement, whose constitution is the enforcement of naming, genesis, and geographical history as the foundations of normative politics and subjectivity, is given in a set of brutally regulatory discursive maneuvers (the conception and deployment/erection and collapse of what Denise Ferreira da Silva calls the "global idea of race") in which blackness's repression has generally been taken for its history. This is so even as what is continually revealed, if not confessed, is that what is now, in the wake of those maneuvers, called blackness makes those very maneuvers possible and — for and as eternally thwarted and dispersed sovereignty — necessary.

In Kant, these erstwhile foundations form a rich field of material figures (where the ones who work the ground are the ground) that animate and destabilize. This cultivation is like a floating bridge that moves and facilitates movement between eighteenth-century exclusionary fantasies of Africa and America and the cultivated nature and organized fantasia of the English garden; between the domesticated and anthropomorphized beast (of burden) and the irreducible wildness of the cultured flower. I am concerned with the extent to which it could be said that the black radical tradition, on the one hand, reproduces the political and philosophical paradoxes of Kantian regulation and, on the other hand, constitutes a resistance that anticipates and makes possible Kantian regulation by way of the instrumentalization to which such resistance is submitted and which it refuses. A further elaboration of those material figures is demanded such that we understand the strife that ensues in the space between two fantasies — the black (woman) as regulative instrument and the black (woman) as natural agent of deregulation — as a turmoil foundational to the modern aesthetic, political, and philosophical fields. Thus my interest in the resistance to "this politics of curtailment" that Kant prescribes. Such resistance, which might be called a radical sociality of the imagination, moves in preparation for the question concerning the law of lawless freedom; but it must be said immediately that this question, which is nothing other than the question of the free irruption of thought, is here and now inseparable from the racialization and sexualization — at once phantasmatic and experiential — of the imagination.

Menninghaus characterizes that politics as a cultural reorientation toward "sense" as a power of meaning that permeates and orders all details of a discursive event into a totality. The distinction between the material surface of a discursive event and the depth of its meaning, accompanied by the preference for the intelligible pole of this opposition, became the characteristic framework for numerous social practices. These entailed a transformation in pedagogy and practices of promoting literacy as well as a reform in reading and study, in universities and in the bureaucracy. In academic teaching, the institutionalization of hermeneutics as the new vanguard science responded to this comprehensive revolution in the discursive network of writing and reading. This network's new practices and its underlying assumptions surpassed the academic science of hermeneutics in its breadth, while at the same time undercutting its subtle problematizations. The poetics of nonsense arises within the horizon of this discursive system, in the border area between late Enlightenment and early romanticism. In Michel Foucault's sense, this poetics can be read as one of the diverse "points of resistance" that are "present everywhere in the power network," as countermovements that do not simply exist outside the new sense-paradigm, and yet are not merely its parasitic "underside."

This is to say that Kant's conceptualization of race, of blackness-as-race or racial difference, is not just one instance among others of him stretching his own wings, of his evasion of their regulative, if partial, amputation or even that weighting of them with lead that, before Kant, Francis Bacon prescribed. Rather, Kant's conceptualization of race — as a way of ordering the dispersive facticity that composes the open set of human differences; as an instantiation of the bridge from natural description to natural history — inaugurates the culmination of the critical philosophy where culmination is best understood as invagination, as a folding that opens the whole that it would also enclose. Kant's imaginative deployment of blackness is also his enactment of those simultaneously constitutive and disruptive properties, those irreducible improprieties, that will have accrued to blackness in the interinanimative development of the knowledge of race, the justification of racialized power and the sciences of man. The author of the critical philosophy and the founder of the aesthetico-scientific concept of race that guarantees and endangers that philosophy's systematicity, is Black Kant. This is, in turn, to say that we must note, along with Menninghaus, the precariousness of that " 'ideal' liaison between beauty and imagination" that the strict regulation of "genius's excessiveness and unreason" can never fully protect, that genius's paradoxical policing of the understanding that is supposed to police it can never fully unleash. That liaison is subject to the dangerous internal difference, the irreducible materiality, that structures the beautiful, the pure. The irreducible materiality of the beautiful and the irreducible irregularity of the imagination define an enclosure that will have always been disruptively invaded, as it were, from the inside. This troubled interiority is either domesticated by way of a cycle of projection and importation; exoticized and eroticized as an object of irreducible difference, attraction, incorporation, and exilic hope; or theorized as an interdicted and invisible view, derived from the (ad)vantage from which it can neither see nor be seen, neither impeded nor enhanced by whatever strange preoccupation. While, as Menninghaus points out with regard to what he calls the escape of nonsense "for a brief moment in the history of Romantic Literature," refuge is found, what he describes as that which "acquires the character of a hyperbolically artistic form rather than of a natural power prior to all culture" is what I prefer to think of as the immanence of a radical informality that precedes the distinction between nature and culture.

Kant's second sight is of the divisive excess at the heart of his own work. This visionary versioning of the critical philosophy persists despite the institutional retrofitting to which it is almost immediately submitted. Having blurred the distinction between invention and discovery in every sensual improvisation of its own priority, because "diverse 'points of resistance'" are "present [always] and everywhere,'" im/pure imagination disrupts and apposes beginnings and ends in general. At stake is another topography altogether. It requires us to speak of and from the underside or underground as refuge; it demands that we fathom (un)sounded depths of surface, outside's complex interiority. At an incalculable cost that he helps to impose (something that is in but not of), Kant helps to make such canted thinking possible. This impurity in Kant, the phantomic reality of his philosophy, emerges through an irregular opening of the regulative that comes fully into relief in relation to Kant's deployment of race — and, more pointedly, of blackness — as teleological principle's radical exemplar. Kant's blackness is given in his fantastical generation of the concept of blackness, whose relation to generativity as such is not just one such relationship among others. Kant knows that the only way to regulate (fantastical) generation is to deploy it as inoculation, so that the philosophical body is resurrected or, perhaps more precisely, transubstantiated by means of the dehiscent and constitutive force of a more than critical power that critical philosophy will have soon learned to neglect. Critical neglect is how generation comes to seem the same — little literalist objects who, having chosen not to object, sign on as privileged beholders, working new galleries and reclaimed city streets like security guards, in melancholic fashion, isolate instances of thwarted Einbildung regulating the monolithic uniformity they project with robotic efficiency and speed almost everywhere they look.

Of course, regulation (negation; uncut critique) encloses blackness, as its very name — one just wants to resist regulation's hegemony, to recognize its surroundings, to put it in its place as an effect of the irregular. Blackness, or, to be more precise, what Laura Harris calls "the aesthetic sociality of blackness," is the collective head, as that head's incessant division and (re)collection, moving in and against and as the situation of its nominative enclosure. Enclosure, engendering, and epidermalization of the irregular, of the alternative, mark the conceptual boundaries of regulatory technique. But to begin in the vicinity of Kant's theory of race, in order to consider how the deployment of difference in the regulation of difference and the deployment of imagination in the regulation of imagination go together, is to consider that something other and more than that, which can only be approached through that, is at stake.

To be sure, an increasing number of initiatives are taken up by aspiring individuals who follow the impulse to prove that genealogical isolation is initiatory. They seem committed to not knowing what they're not missing. On the other hand, in "Nomos and Narrative," Robert M. Cover notes that it is "remarkable that in myth and history the origin of and justification for a court is rarely understood to be the need for law. Rather, it is understood to be the need to suppress law, to choose between two or more laws, to impose upon laws a hierarchy. It is the multiplicity of laws, the fecundity of the jurisgenerative principle, that creates the problem to which the court and the state are the solution." Though Cover is ambivalent regarding the abolition of this solution, which he understands to be violent, of necessity, his advocacy of a certain resistance to the very apparatuses whose necessity he denaturalizes makes it possible for us to ask some questions that the state and the understanding find not only inappropriate but also inappropriable. What if the imagination is not lawless but lawful? What if it is, in fact, so full of laws that, moreover, are in such fugitive excess of themselves that the imagination, of necessity, is constantly, fugitively in excess of itself as well? Will law have then been manifest paralegally, criminally, fugitively, as a kind of ongoing antisystemic break or breaking; as sociality's disruptive avoidance of mere civility that takes form in and as a contemporaneity of different times and the inhabitation of multiple, possible worlds and personalities? In response to this anoriginal priority of the differential set, the courts and the state (as well as critics of every stripe) will have insisted upon the necessity of policing such collaboration. Meanwhile, relations between worlds will have been given in and as a principle of nonexclusion. The line of questioning that, in Kant's wake, Cover requires and enables brings the jurisgenerative principle to bear on a burden that it must bear: the narrative that begins with the criminalization (and engendering racialization) of that principle. In studying the criminalization of anoriginal criminality, one recognizes that the jurisgenerative principle is a runaway. Gone underground, it remains, nevertheless, our own anarchic ground.


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments  vii
Preface  ix
1. Knowledge of Freedom  1
2. Gestural Critique of Judgment  96
3. Uplift and Criminality  115
4. The New International of Decent Feelings  140
5. Rilya Wilson, Precious Doe, Buried Angel  152
6. Black Op  155
7. The Touring Machine (Flesh Thought Inside Out)  161
8. Seeing Things  183
9. Air Shaft, Rent Party  188
10. Notes on Passage  191
11. Here, There, and Everywhere  213
12. Anassignment Letters  227
13. The Animaternalizing Call  237
14. Erotics of Fugitivity  241
Notes  269
Works Cited  297
Index  309

What People are Saying About This

Bodies in Dissent: Spectacular Performances of Race and Freedom, 1850-1910 - Daphne A. Brooks

"Our friend Fred Moten, the prodigious philosopher, poet, collaborator, conspirator, critic, and fearless planner, extends to us a riveting, beautiful, and turbulent collection of essays. A massive and mobile series of meditations on the intramural and the undercommons, Stolen Life cuts a fugitive path toward the place where blackness and black study collude and collide with one another, offering us the blueprints to better hear the poetry of our ontology, and the ontology of our poetry. As precious contraband for this scholarly moment of emergency, this field-altering masterpiece is set to be played again and again."

Late Arcade - Nathaniel Mackey

"Fred Moten's panpipe critical practice is nowhere more luxuriantly available than in Stolen Life. Diagnostic, ministerial, rhapsodic, it pulls out all stops to chase the farthest, fullest reaches of thought and language, criticality's gambit. Moten returns the essay to its etymon, a radical trial, a radical attempt, what John Coltrane called pursuance, in flight for and toward something, which is as much what fugitivity (a prized word and concept between these covers) is as getting away, an unremitting search prone to unexpected turns at any point. Study is a word of choice in Moten's work and he does indeed school us, take us to school. We've been tardy at times, we learn, and we've even, on occasion, played hooky. No matter. He pulls right up outside our door, driving the bus."

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