Beyond 90°: The Angularities of Black/Queer/Women/Lean | Kemi Adeyemi (29.1)
What had me the most fucked up about Walter Scott’s 2015 murder was how I cursed him under my breath as I watched him run. I cursed him for not jumping out of his car in a more wooded area, or in a more urban area: grounds where he might have ducked under, hid behind, scrambled over something—anything—and maybe survived Officer Michael Slager’s bullets. Slager surely feared what I myself rooted for: that in the uncultivated expanse of this dry, South Carolina field unencumbered by vehicles, vegetation, or buildings, Scott might get to full speed and carry himself to safety. Of course, Slager et al. never confess that they are shooting or choking to kill because their victims are black, or woman, or trans, or poor, or houseless, or mentally ill, but because they simply fear for their life. Patterns of police violence are simply rationalized away as unfortunate misreadings of how black people take place in the landscape. Black everyday practices such as standing, sitting, driving, or walking while wearing clothing and/or holding food, toys, cell phones, and/or durable goods are just that alarming. It seems that being black and upright elicits so much fear that it is punishable by death. The same goes, I suppose, for being black and horizontal, a spatio-racial coordinate that is threatening inasmuch as it could hypothetically, eventually lead to one to become black and upright, which would jumpstart the cycle of killability once more. So it must be being black and simply making contact with the ground is enough to slate one for death.
I am thinking about the literal ground a lot lately because I have spent far too much time watching people like Scott being ground into it: thrust upon, dragged over, pressed into, and left to rot atop it. Whether we are in fields, suburban subdivisions, city sidewalks, next to a swimming pool, on a road, in a backyard, or really anywhere, people like Slager become so unmoored when they encounter black people, so wrenched from the metaphysical ground, that they are sent into a psychic spiral. Their only instinct is to simply bring/take/shoot us to the ground. It would seem that State/white/normative power requires black people’s specifically downward orientation to the ground, as this represents having literal and figurative power over us, so physically realigning Scott was essential to Slager’s own (re)stabilization.1 In other words, the violent groundings of black people serve to reaffirm an expected angularity—usually the 180° degrees of the dead or incapacitated body—that in turn affirms and makes possible the place and placemaking strategies of a white ruling class that is oriented around, if not obsessed with, the verticality and perpendicularity of the 90° angle.
This 90° angle has accumulated value through what Ann Cooper Albright describes as the “hegemony of the vertical...The Christian/capitalist complex that insists what is up is good (stock markets, tall buildings, bank accounts, and other assorted ‘fill in the blanks’) and what is down is bad” (2017, 64). These physically and philosophically elevated regimes of thought, belief, and feeling structure the seemingly necessarily perpendicular relationship between the human form and the ground. This 90° is a countenance appropriate for contemplation of higher planes of Being that are variously adjudicated by the Judeo-Christian God on the one hand and science and Reason on the other. 90° is also (of course? obviously?) wholly circumscribed by masculinist investments in the phallus as that which indexes one’s abilities to access these planes in the first place, and dependent upon the violent othering of disabilities that would make it difficult if not impossible to physically hold one’s whole body upright. When we consider questions of placemaking from the most granular levels of the body’s points of contact to the literal ground, we understand the hegemony of this 90° as a distinctly gendered and racialized angle that also (dis)-organizes black life (especially considering that black traversal of the ground is almost always trespassing). As Man/whiteness is instituted by and valorized as 90° verticality, black life has been forcibly staged in its surrounding angles.
Since we cannot seem to guarantee our living through financial, legislative, moral, or ethical routes—some of the frameworks we use to define and practice politics (the practices of engaging dispute) and the political (the terrain upon which “us” and “them” is determined)—maybe a turn toward the mathematical logics of the angles that discipline our b/Being, that structure both politics and the political, will help chart a path toward amore livable future.2 What angular orientations to the ground continue to be expected of black people? Are allowed to black women? Black queer subjects? In an effort to answer these questions, I turn toward how the artist Rashaad Newsome mobilizes the physical and affective inhabitations of leaning in his performances Shade Compositions, which refuse the disciplinary function of 90°. I argue that thinking about his performances through the lens of the angle is coextensive with thinking through black politics itself, suggesting more specifically that the physical and aural practices of leaning in Shade Compositions situate racialized queer and femme subject positions as the default grounds upon which politics and the political can be organized. As I discuss, their leaning subsequently textures what Barnor Hesse describes as the very work of black politics to reveal the constitutive absence of the black to the Western political. The leaning mechanics of Shade Compositions begin with and refuse the base physicalities that define “good,” civil politics in the West: for example, using calm, non-threatening, and understanding embodiments and vocal tones, and participating in formal government institutions. In their leaning, the performers physically, affectively, and communicatively step back from their invisible interlocutors and refuse to engage in the styles of “mutual” discourse that supposedly characterize conflict resolution. We see then that the expectations of civility and mutuality continue to be infused with the expectations of verticality—even as this style of discourse is increasingly thrown into crisis with the election, legitimate and otherwise, of media-savvy global leaders.
Embodied by those subjects most violently disciplined by the West—namely, black women, queer people, people of color, and femmes—the subtly brash vocabularies of leaning showcased in Shade Compositions document dissent that begins from the understanding that minoritarian subjects should always be suspicious of such governing strategies. The physical and metaphysical qualities of leaning become perhaps the only appropriate response to a life lived under siege, and the performance provides an opportunity to think expansively about the range of affects that are generated as a result. Building upon this understanding, the end of the essay sets up a longer, more difficult to parse out picture of apathy as key to the onto-kinetic registers—ways of moving that index ways of being, and vice versa—through which bodies marked as black/queer/woman take place in regimes that so effectively mobilize lies to maintain “order.” Apathy is its own critical practice of refusal to engage and is but one of the many sentiments that Shade Compositions activates; the performance thereby illuminates the physical and conceptual kinship between the angularities of leaning and other critical methods of awareness. I subsequently end the piece with a brief foray into the relations of apathy to leaning in order to spotlight multisensory strategies of acknowledging yet refusing to participate that are deployed in an historical moment where actually existing interventions into “politics as usual” can feel increasingly elusive. Thinking through the coordinates of leaning and apathy may very well be a selfish endeavor, as apathy is precisely what gets me through viewing the constant grounding of people who look and move like me, usually inadvertently so, as recordings flood my social media feeds without warning. It helps me to manage the psychic space of an everyday life knowing my points of contact to the ground may be reorganized at any point from a chill heel-to-toe into a sprint turned to scraped palms and gnashed teeth and, if I’m (un)lucky, a kind of elevated spiriting upward to relieve me of any pain.
A Brief History of 90°: an agnostic black queer woman’s study in the Judeo-Christian angles of whiteness, complete with the historical glossing, indifference, factual errors, and wholesale omissions that have historically suffused studies of non-white people
The valorization of the 90°-angle to the ground is rooted in Judeo-Christian beliefs in the Godhead and, specifically, fears around (and attempts to atone for) man’s fall from the heavens.3 There he communed with God, until he was stirred by his passions and fell to the mortal realm. Despite inter- and intra-denominational debates about the appropriate degrees of physical verticality of worship required to atone for such sinning—whether to kneel, to stand, to lie prostrate, and the like—the “up” position of the key spirit in question is relatively standard to a Western spiritual practice. The value systems surrounding such perpendicularity have been continually reinforced through the historical development of global, racial capitalism, which itself operates through the physically and ideologically violent disciplining of the downward status of women and femme people of color, in particular. The entanglements of colonization, capital accumulation, science and Reason, and Judeo-Christianity produced what Wynter (2003) describes as “Man,” an enduring figure which denotes the accumulated economic, biologic, and secular meaning-making processes that mark the white, cisgender, heterosexual, and landowning person as the human of and in humanity. Man in his 90° superiority is a construction, fiction, myth, and ideal, but one that has very real, material consequences. If we account for the racist, misogynist, and ableist conditions that make Man’s 90° possible, we might pave the way for understanding other angles through which the doing of politics and the (re)organization of the political can become perceptible.
The constellation of intellectual thought, scientific advancement, and colonial expansion that constituted and made possible The Enlightenment did not necessarily imply a turn away from the logic of up/ward as the site for redemption. The imperative of verticality merely took shape in other methodologies of elevation. Paradoxically hunched over desks, books, and the bodies of colonized and enslaved people, Enlightenment thinkers exalted the moral and rational oeuvre of the sovereign, autonomous subject as the new godhead.4 Here, restrained, regimented movement was seen to enable a more efficient attainment of rationality. This civilized, self-restraining subject is not subject to extraneous or involuntary movement; he is not apt to trip, stumble, crumble, or flail.5 Nor, importantly, is he at the mercy of external, forced movement, nor the relational geometry of the mother bending over her child.6 The seeming control of movement, in other words, became part and parcel of the production of an efficient verticality, both of which continue to be intimately entwined with beliefs around subjectivity, rationality, civility, and, ultimately, one’s capacity to fit in the category of Human.
These formations of the Human(ist subject) were developed in the crucible of intra-European settlement as much as they were interwoven with efforts to make sense of those bodies being encountered through colonial expansion in the Americas, in particular. The Enlightenment project of upward orientation was of course one of territorial control,and the twinned logics of Reason and imperialism structured Man’s relationship to, and angles of connecting with, the land, to be sure, but also their attempts to reckon with the materiality of and movements available to the indigenous and black people also striding upon it.7 For Locke (1690), an English political philosopher embraced by the framers of the U.S. Constitution, the very concept of rationality was tethered to an appropriate relationship to the ground. Locke crafted his support of English plantations in the Americas through critiques of how Spanish and Dutch colonial enterprises insufficiently and inefficiently enclosed and cultivated the land, and practiced husbandry. Key to Locke’s arguments were his critique of indigenous people’s seemingly inappropriate angularity to the ground. By not effectively mobilizing angles ranging from, say, 20° to 50°—those downward facing, laboring angles the body takes on in order to till, sow, and harvest—indigenous people were seen as mismanaging the land by “wasting” vast amounts of potential surplus crops and therefore cash, violating what Locke saw as “a moral duty toward humanity,” which is to conquer nature for Man’s gain (Kotef 2015). They were in turn marked and accused as nomadic, landless Others because they did not build sufficiently permanent, vertical structures for dwelling and for exchange on top of the land. Indigenous people’s seemingly inappropriate angularity was an anathema to European reason: the lack of enclosed land and permanent, tall buildings mirrored the lack of a Western-style social hierarchy and presumably the higher-level thinking and government that is allegedly evidenced in those vertical structures.8 By not “properly” settling, cultivating, or redistributing land, the indigenous person did not practice an appropriate conceptual nor physical orientation to the ground and was thereby seen as incapable of comporting to the registers of rational civil society—a set of concerns that would contribute to the constellation of justifications for the coming land-grab (Arneil 2009, 2012; Kotef 2015).
As indigenous populations were dispossessed of and relocated from the most profitable terrain of the colonial territories, the sedimentation of 90° as the privileged domain of Man would be continually reified as the plantation economy was streamlined throughout the eighteenth century. At the most granular levels, the plantation logic operated through the violent disciplining of black enslaved persons’ relationships to the ground (McKittrick 2011, 2013). The 90° angles of Man (and the related concepts of Human, Subject, and Citizen) were stabilized by the angularities of black to and as ground: in the back-breaking 30° of repetitive agricultural work, the psychological 70° of subservient tending forward with downcast eyes, the sharp shifts between 100° and 110° taken on with each whiplash, the 180° of the dead body, the 0° of “Cum sup terr” (Hartman 2008, 1).
These expected orientations to and relations with and of the ground continue to shape what André Lepecki briefly terms the “tectonics of racialization” (2004, 2006): processes that reveal how racial blackness, gender (and formations of masculinity, in his particular discussions), movement, and ideology are structured orientations to the ground that are always overdetermined by colonial formations. He crafts his discussion through the downward orientations of Frantz Fanon and the performance artist William Pope.L, as their thinking with the movements of crawling, in particular, charts the angular coordinates of race as outlining the political (and ontological) im/possibilities of blackness. Lepecki dissects Fanon’s canonical moment of being hailed by a child, Look a Negro!, focusing on how the verbal assault caused Fanon to stumble, initiating a series of phenomenological and ontological re-orientations. Jolted out of 90°, a position which he should allegedly never inhabit in the first place, as it is the position of civil rationality, Fanon subsequently “...progress[es] by crawling” (Lepecki 2004, 54). Fanon’s onto-kinetic stumble signals for Lepecki the deeply proprioceptive question of how “the speech act forces upon the racialized body both a posture and a kinesthesia” inextricable from the materiality of the grounds in question (2004, 54). Where, for Fanon, crawling becomes the mechanism for inhabiting the “ice-cold atmosphere of colonialist-racist confrontations” in any environment, for William Pope.L, crawling becomes a negotiation of “the smooth kinetic functioning of the modern city, based on ideals of efficient flow of bodies and commodities” (Lepecki 2006, 97).9 Beginning in 1978, Pope.L began to stage exhaustive, slow crawls where he rejected the imperative of 90° altogether, embracing horizontality as he dragged himself across a myriad of urban landscapes (Wilson 1996).
Lepecki’s work on Fanon and Pope.L speaks to the powerful hold the downward and horizontal position have had in the longer history of Black Politics, an orientation that Jason King insightfully tracks in a conversation about how certain kinds of black intimacy with the ground shape political identification and value. Theorizing spatial coordinates as racialized affective and political subjectivities, King details how beliefs, assumptions, or at least hopes for ascension are inextricable from very particular mobilizations of the down position: “A transitive fall, or a fall that turns into an opportunity to rise, has purpose. Permanent or willful downward mobility, falling that does not result in rebound, is unspeakable” (King 2004, 32).10 King gestures to the critical possibilities of a more kinetically complex angularity through which black politics might be articulated when he momentarily spotlights the importance of the movement between up and down, suggesting black politics is conditioned by the “uncanny balance and rhythm” of the disorientations caused by the act of sliding between horizontal and vertical. “Blackness,” he suggests, “is ambivalent direction, finding fall in the ascent, and the ascent in the fall. This is survival” (2004, 41–42).
Though providing critical, detailed, and insightful analyses, neither King, Lepecki, Pope.L, nor Fanon help us to dislodge verticality and horizontality as the primary binary around which (black) politics are waged.11 What happens when we take a cue from disability studies and do away with up–down and begin from other angles to do and theorize politics, black and otherwise?12 What questions can we ask and methods can we utilize when we move away from the masculinist and ableist undertones of horizontality and verticality—especially as they connote the ongoing attempted domination of womanist, queer, and femme sensibilities—and approach motility through feminist, queer, and trans optics?13 Here, the physicality of leaning emerges as an onto-kinetic mechanism that simultaneously (re)territorializes the angular expectations of the able body and rearranges the very grounds of the Western political, opening up a conversation about the very doing of politics and the political from the vantage point of those subjects who are most excluded from it, including black women, queer people of color, and the overlaps connecting them.
If we construct a genealogy of black politics as specifically staged in the lean, we see how reorientations of Man’s rigid 90° were staged in the elongated, leaning sliding of the antebellum cakewalk and in the dips of televised soul train lines (Brown 2009); they were palpable in the jive physicalities of black hipsters who critiqued their disarticulation from Interwar society with pigeon-toed, knock-kneed stances that pitched forward at the waist (Broyard 2001). Leaning’s quotidian acts of dissent emerge in a shifty step back, an akimbo stance, and a slow blink; in a car seat laid way, way, way back for a slow cruise; or in the distinctly leaning outcomes of opioid consumption which in contexts signal addiction and in others, such as the commercial rap music industry, serve as symbols of surviving the imperative of ever-regimented movement (Adeyemi 2015). These leans are not in the midst of falling or resolutely upright. They are anchors of discipline and suspicion which point to yet disavow 90° as the position of authority, asserting instead a new methodology of authority—one, as we see in Rashaad Newsome’s collection of performances titled Shade Compositions, that is staged in and inextricable from the lives and experiences of black women, women of color, queer people, and queer people of color.
The Racialized Queer Tectonics of Racialization: Between & Beyond the 90°–180° Binary
Newsome’s Shade Compositions performances reveal how leaning stages the micropolitics and minor affects of dissent in ways that address Albright’s earlier call to take seriously methods of producing and considering resilience in the midst of precarity, but without recourse to ascension as a privileged mode of moving the body and organizing politics. The verbal, gestural, and affective repertoires of Shade Compositions illuminate a doing of politics that embraces angular dissonance. What emerges is a picture of the doing of politics and an understanding of the political from the vantage point of black women, in particular.14 As the performance is tailored to each city in which it is performed, however, it just as often includes multiethnic and multigendered casts of people who reflect the makeup of the site or the theme Newsome is interested in therein.
First staged with a cast of 21 black women and gender nonconforming people in 2009 at The Kitchen in New York City, Shade Compositions has since then been performed in cities including Paris, Moscow, and Detroit. The performances arrange a “chorus” in front of individual microphones, into which they execute improvisatory patterns of vocalization including sucking teeth, smacking lips, hmms, uhs, uh uhs, nuh uhs, and the like. These are accompanied by relevant facial expressions, hand gestures, and body postures that together comprise challenges, refusals, incredulity, scoffing, anger, dismissiveness, and more. Facing his collaborators, Newsome “conducts” this orchestra, creating additional series of sonic loops using a hacked Nintendo Wii controller synced with a laptop.
The resultant compositions demonstrate the performativity of shade, a practice of highlighting someone’s faults, but rather than directly calling them out, expressing them through indirection, suggestion, omission, and obfuscation—letting, in other words, the person in question know exactly what is wrong, but without stating it explicitly. Shade is an outgrowth of reading, both of which have roots in LGBTQ black and brown drag, ball, vogue, and kiki scenes which are themselves indebted to the quotidian performance repertoires of black and brown girls and women.15 Newsome describes the project as thinking through the stereotypes which are mapped onto black and brown bodies, suggesting that the attention to individual microgestures, when brought cacophonously together, can potentially disarticulate the two. Shade Compositions offers opportunities to reflect on racialized queer corporeal sensibilities, providing moments to query the angles at which categories such as “black queer,” but also “black woman,” and are taken up as the sites through which politics, especially those dedicated to a critique of 90° itself, are staged at a discursive register, as an aural technology, and, especially, as a particularly embodied praxis.
The 2012 iteration of Shade Compositions staged at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art reveals a multiethnic and multiracial cast of performers across the gender spectrum engaging in the sonic, physical, and affective vocabularies of leaning that challenge the upward ascension and teleological directionality that undergird politics and the political. Arranged in three rows, they are clustered together in color-coded clothing: red, white, blue, and black. The performance begins slowly with sounds of sucking teeth, made by pressing your tongue to the front of the roof of your mouth or at times directly on your clenched teeth and rapidly pulling away, and/or by using your tongue to draw air into your clenched teeth,developing in the front row before spreading across the other two.16 The performers’ sounds range from disaffected to aggressive; these sensibilities are clarified and amplified by the face-work each performer engages, from wide-eyed I dare you to looking at their hands, performing far more interest in their nails than the invisible person to whom the smacks are directed. At other times, performers’ hands are variously thrown upward, downward, or flippantly outward to physicalize the dismissiveness sounded by their mouths. The varieties of disciplining mouth sounds morph into tonal variations of “mmmh” and “hmmm” that range from suspicious inquiries to dismissive interrogatives. These breath-based articulations eventually turn into shared affirmations (mmmhmmm) amongst the performers that the unseen receiver(s) of said shade is, in fact, in the wrong before the first fully formed words of the performance develop: one performer’s exasperated repetition of please that is underscored by another’s percussive, eighth-note repetition of well, well, well. In an early, key crescendo of the piece, the demands of What?! blend in with Huh?!, which are further complicated by the overlapping addition of Que?! from elsewhere in the chorus.
The performers’s varying physical practices of leaning are inextricable from these sonic vocabularies. The overall askance disposition of the collective, visualized in their variations of leaning, is generally signaled by one bent knee, making it so that the bulk of the performer’s weight is balanced on the opposite, stiffened leg. With this shift in weight a hip may take on greater angularity, and the shoulders move away from a particularly perpendicular relationship to the ground. Other limbs are also often redistributed, most often seen in the arm on the weight-bearing side of the body moving up, crooking at the elbow so the hand is level with (or sometimes performatively propping up) the chin, or seen as both arms loosely crossing in front of the body. Finalizing the precise affect of any given lean is the position of the head, be it tipped forward with eyes bugging out, rolled upward in sheer incredulity, or lolling back in feigned disinterest. Even when performers are not uttering the variances of shade, they nonetheless inhabit it in their leaning, which shifts moment to moment depending on the intended force of it.
These modes of leaning are rooted in the gestural economies of black and brown subject formations even as they are taken up and (re)performed here by people across the spectrums of race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality. In this, the performance certainly provides an opportunity to discuss the global circulation of shade. The performance also demonstrates the development of a complex racialized queer angle, one emergent in a broader affiliation rooted in technique, that makes possible a critique of the physical-ideological foundations of 90°. At the same time Shade Compositions takes up the body’s stance as the site for deconstructing the related logics of civility and rationality that this angle governs (which, like 90°, are distinctly white, male, colonial-imperial, Enlightenment logics). The very ideals of civility and rationality that have historically been seen to govern politics depend upon the “incivil” and “irrational” racialized queer others who allegedly do not practice “good” or “effective” politics: the teeth-sucking dissenters of Shade Compositions, kneeling NFL players, Black Lives Matter die-ins, indigenous protesters who shut down commercial access, transpeople who shout down town halls, down to the grappling and tumbling that characterizes conflict and resolution in reality television franchises that capitalize on black women’s romantic endeavors, etc. The tense suspensions inherent to leaning—that are required to hold one’s body at, say, 97°—suggest a continual practice of engagement that may not have nor desire the cumulative effects of civility-cum-verticality that are privileged in the Western political, which Hesse (2011) describes as a field of debate and dispute that depends upon yet disavows race.
For Hesse, black politics is subsequently a philosophical orientation that exposes this constitutive absence. Importantly, Hesse’s formulation of black politics opens space to think of it as deeply embodied, as it “mobiliz[es] circumventions and interrogations of obligations to racial comportment and the institutional conventions of racial rule” (2011, 977). In this, black politics “embodies an escape from race performativity” and is subsequently a practice that “address[es] itself to the reinhabitation of the sociogeographic West and the reconstruction of the Western political that conventionally proscribe it” (2011, 977). In Shade Compositions, the physical, affective, and philosophical modes of suspension that inhere in leaning reveal how (anti)black(woman)ness grounds the hegemony of 90°, which shapes the very field of the political. They in turn open space to consider how reinhabitations of the angles that surround 90° potentially disaggregate racialized formations of gender and sexuality from the binaries of up–down and from risen-fallen that allegedly organize civil politics.
As a continual reinhabitation that refuses the onto-kinetic formations of 90°, leaning is a productively incivil (Nyong’o and Tompkins 2018) refusal to lock into place into angles which, by virtue of gravity or physiology, happen “naturally” at 90° for bodies marked as Human, Man, Citizen, and Subject. It also refuses those angles which, by virtue of racism, ableism, and (trans)misogyny/misogynoir (Bailey 2016), lock in at 180° for those bodies marked as incapacitated, if not (always already) dead.17 In other words, Shade Compositions demonstrates leaning itself as viable mode of engaging politics from a perspective and position of minoritarian subjectworlds within which the mechanics of 90° are not only always suspicious but also, as a result, the least effective standpoint from which to lodge a complaint. In Shade Compositions, leaning and its affective correlates become instead the shared vocabulary through which dissent is valued. This is palpable in a moment of the performance where leaning takes on an intra-group disciplinary function as the collective works to hem in an unruly member—deemed unruly for the precise ways in which her method of doing politics conforms to traditional, bureaucratic enactments of 90° where complaints are lodged to elicit an appropriate reparation.
Around the 20-minute mark of the performance, a solo voice emerges, repeating What?! with an increasingly frantic yet placating tone that suggests a growing confusion with a figure such as a romantic partner. In the span of a few moments she coopts what had up to that point been a united if individually inflected chorus of dismissive What?! into an individualized, panicked plea. It is at this point that the other performers begin to address their own leaning dismissals toward her, smirking at her, plugging their ears, and shaking their heads in exasperation as her energy becomes increasingly desperate. Leaning, here, becomes cutting. As they lean back from the shoulders, sharply setting their chins down and bugging their eyes out at her in annoyance (and toward one another in shared affect), they flag their embarrassment for her performance of non-decorous, non-productively incivil, protestation.
They slowly begin to correct her physical and sonic cowering by modeling their own powerful leaning, working to bring her back into alignment into the “correct” affect of the larger collective. This includes a particular re-training of the sonic nuances of leaning. As her What?! stretches into shrieking sobs, some performers pat her on the arm, de-escalate their critical stances, or begin contributing their own teeth smacking (tsking, now, at her invisible antagonist). Slowly they come to contribute their own, softened what?!, turning their aural leaning into a method of assent and affirmation—but never one that reincorporates the rigidity of 90°. A black woman on the opposite end of the woman on the verge turns toward her, left arm akimbo, and addresses her with Saah, a Ghanaian Twi form of shade that, depending on the formality and the context, connotes assent, corrective incredulity (akin to “Really, fam?”), and displeasure.18 She repeats gently as if in listening and understanding before taking on the shared information and moving her body to turn it outward in a way that the other woman perhaps could not externalize. In an insistent, full bodied critique, she subsequently addresses the invisible antagonist with What?!, Huh?!, Saah?! With each verbalization she modifies her lean, starting with her hand on her hip, tipped forward slightly at the waist. In other iterations her lean ripples from a slightly jutted hip which presses her back and shoulders back, and she punctuates it by snapping her chin down and slightly back. In each movement she both expresses her own critique of the situation at hand while simultaneously physically and aurally modeling most effective way to do so.
In this extended moment, the Shade Compositions collective argues that the political is not reshaped through frantic pleading for recognition from a unified body (which might be signaled perhaps by the unseen antagonist giving the performer a rationale for the uprooting event that caused her shrieks). The collective’s working to physically, sonically, and affective realign the woman helped to shape a more “proper” dissent as taking place through leaning, which signals one’s dissatisfaction with a given event while expressing a deep understanding of the limits, if not impossibility, that one would ever receive the desired reconciliation from said event in the first place. To bolster this understanding, the chorus eventually joins in on coaxing the woman’s What?! into the right direction, until she veers away from a pleading and into angry screams from deep in her gut: Bring it! What?!. The collaboration seemingly effective, she eventually comes to an enlightened resolution: she quiets and throws her weight on her left foot, popping her left hip into place at the same time that she cocks her head to the left. With an eye-roll and a short, half-laughed Huh. that is less expressed in words than expelled through breath, she brings her left arm up and with a flika the wrist takes on the lean that the performers surrounding her had seemingly been encouraging her to do all along. Here the lean is an explicit refusal of the rules of engagement that she had theretofore been trying to work within. The lean, a full physical and psychic space, inhabits a deep understanding of those limiting conditions under which she would never, if ever, be truly heard.
Her finalizing lean is at the same time an incorporation into the ways of being that the larger collective had been rehearsing and encouraging her to take up. This scene in the performance reflects upon the multilingual and multisensorial ways that non-white people can interrogate and refuse the expectations of civil discourse that overdetermine their participation in society writ large. For us, the doing of politics is not staged through (or even possible within) the allegedly civil discourse characteristic of processual, bureaucratic, representational (and reparative) government that has long served Man and his rigid perpendicularity: the woman’s invisible antagonist will never truly perceive her complaint, let alone repair the wrongdoing, no matter what scales of urgency she performs. What emerges is instead a doing of politics that takes as its starting point the acutely leaning performatives of those for whom the very capacity for civility (and rationality and thus citizenry) has always been suspect. As the collective works to shape the woman’s sonic, physical, and affective flexibilities, they theorize leaning as an active response to the well-founded suspicion that governing bodies, formal and informal, are in fact the suspicious ones—and that this knowledge requires an entirely different physical and affective method of approach.
Concluding thoughts that tend toward a new essay on angles that index affects
In Shade Composition’s focus on full-bodied exclamations that are repetitive and at times cumulative, an accumulation that always maintains dissonance, the individual as well as the collective taking up of leaning is demonstrative of a politics that does not work toward the utopian goal of reparation, as that depends upon a codified, legible, state-sanctioned bloc as well as the sheer desire to be included within the state itself (which depends, in turn, on adhering to state-regulated, phenotypically based identity categories). The performance instead considers the very scale of the gesture itself as reorienting the directionality and angularity of a regimented, bureaucratic, and teleological political process wherein registering refusal has the express goal of an achievable outcome (down → up; fallen → risen; absence of subject/citizen → Man; formal politics → political legibility; injury → reparation). While acknowledging the very real importance of working within traditional, formal political channels, thinking through the lean as an actual physicality that anticipates alterable and expansive modes of collectivizing beyond future incorporation may help us orient away from cumulative understandings of—and expectations for—politics that have never served the world’s most dispossessed people. Working from inhabitations such as leaning might move us toward more complex theories and practices of doing politics that are attentive to, and reflective of, the stultifying present.
Leaning is indeed quite literally a state of critical suspension of the physical body, and one that resonates with the demands of existing within this stultifying present. It requires a not-insignificant amount of muscle tension, as well as the highly performative suspension of disbelief. In this, leaning embodies a time period of management, but one without expectations (such as those rooted time/places of up–down, vertical-horizontal). Attuned to the now as a predictive or anticipatory site of revision, leaning is a waiting that is a holding—but not necessarily still—until the time is right...for something.19 Here is where the physicalities of leaning are coextensive with the many affective structures that condition them. In Shade Compositions, we sense that the effectiveness of the woman’s leaning—especially when we see that she has fully understood, taken on, and redeployed leaning to achieve her ends—is not fully established until it is directly paired with her quick, sharp eye-roll. Herleaning step-back is made whole through her rendering of apathetic (dis)interest, performed or earnest, in whatever the invisible antagonist might try to engage next. Where apathy is infact frequently understood as a lack of interest, in Shade Compositions we see her learn and practice the right modes of leaning, so we know that this apathy she demonstrates is not actually a lack of interest. Her apathy is a fully invested finishing touch on an ongoing critical stance, which is in fact consonant with early definitions of apathy that were emergent in Greek monastic tradition (Rasmussen 2005; Tobon 2010).
Thinking about the resonance of apathy across the performance might be useful for querying the diverse physical and affective modes of suspension that help us to survive regimes of neoliberal governance that demand we constantly recalibrate to the intensification of violence we are steeped in. Namely, the suspension of disbelief, surprise, and disappointment regarding the physically, affectively, socially, culturally, politically, religiously, and economically regulated status of minoritarian subjects worldwide. Black apathy, in particular, is an always already critical practice that emerges out of and is tethered to an awareness that to be possessed by racial blackness is to be possessed by a distinctly flattened relationship to the ground; is to live a life that is, in turn, a never-ending battleground (Hartman 1997).20 Expressed through sentiment and through the physicality of leaning, it is a measure of desensitization to the sights and sounds of black death we are inundated with mixed with the expectation that we, too, will be subject to the ground sooner or later. Rather than fear-based retreats into the self or outward projections of protest, both of which are highly justified, the always already critical frameworks of apathy shape an alternative, disaffected yet performative relationship to the hegemony of 90° that governs our relationships to the ground. A critical apathy which neither strives upward for utopian enlightenment nor covets the down position, but traffics in the physical and affective movements required to balance the two, reflects—and is required to thrive in—an everyday life lived under the mundane threat of grounding. As an embodied expression of racial affect that takes on particular contours under neoliberalism, the coeval processes of leaning and critical apathy provide a shared set of tools that subjects maneuver in to signal belonging, particular and partial as it may be, in a greater social world where feelings and emotions are as rich a currency as economic capital, and are as stridently angular as the 90° we daily strive to topple before we’re the next to be pressed into the earth.
1. This downwardness is a (productively) vexing angle because the very downwardness of obsequiousness can also slip into the shape of fugitivity, as happened with Scott who, bent at the waist, tipped forward nearly parallel with the ground as he ran.
2. On these definitions of politics and the political, you might reference work by Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau.
3. The Godhead refers here to the Trinity—God, the Father, and the Holy Spirit—as well as the more abstract qualities that inhere in, or seen to be emblematized by, those terms and figures, such as divinity, holiness, and goodness. The latter are also frequently described by the lower-case term godhead.
4. This of course mirrors the paradoxical wanderings Cervenak (2014) details regarding the entanglements of Enlightenment philosophies and the literal, physical expansion of the colonial empire.
5. For a dance-focused discussion of how the intertwining ideologies of the upright person coincide with the liberal subject, see Andrew Hewitt’s (2005) book, Social Choreography: Ideology as Performance in Dance and Everyday Movement.
6. The work of philosophers of subjectivity, society, and government such as Hobbes (1651) who built their work through (deeply racist) implicit and explicit theorizations of black enslaved people forced into movement in various colonial empires continue to shape contemporary thought. Adriana Cavarero’s (2016) insightful reading of the threat inclination posed to the likes of Hobbes as well as Immanuel Kant nonetheless sets up many rich questions about “new relational ontolog[ies] of the vulnerable”—though her reading is quite tethered to narrow (biological) notions of maternal care.
7. Indeed, European reckoning with indigenous and black bodies was also staged at the scale of the materiality the body itself—and, in particular, the body that may not be human [lowercase“h”] at all. Tiffany Lethabo King (2016) in fact mines early colonial accounts describing black persons as ground. Enslaved persons’ enmeshments with earth and vegetation, scripted by their skin tones, made them seemingly indistinct from the ground itself—a lack of distinction that intersected with other phenotypical, religious, and intellectual rationales used to ultimately justify their enslavement. See also Allewaert (2013).
8. There are in fact many examples of indigenous populations throughout the Americas crafting lasting vertical structures that challenge Locke’s understanding of indigenous social, cultural, economic, and spiritual practices as particularly “primitive.”
9. In thinking about the materiality of the ground, Lepecki frames the tectonics of racialization as posing a distinctly choreo-ontological challenge to the universalizing tendencies of Western dance, in particular, which depends upon the physically and metaphorically flattened ground: a smooth, uninterrupted plane upon which able-bodied people may dance, uninhibited by gaps, objects, etc. which may cause a dancer to trip. Lepecki argues this flattened plane twins the ahistoricity of Western dance, and potentially of performance studies writ large, as well as Western inquiries into ontology as fields in danger of not adequately attending to the “politically and racially charged field,” a term that I want to take as literally as possible, “where the violence of the optical-linguistic apparatus literally transforms the coming into presence” (2004, 56).
10. At another point King notes: “If ascension is required for insurgency, horizontalism becomes inertia, apathy, couch potato-ism, stasis, sittin’ on the dock of the bay. Being up, getting up, however, registers as potency” (2004, 34).
11. There is a related conversation that could be staged here with Jose Esteban Muñoz’s work on the “depressive position”(2000, 2006): a physical and metaphorical site in and from which “brown feelings” or “feeling brown” circulate. Muñoz’s depressive position indeed suggests a physical location (down) and its opposite, the upward position of happiness (680), but is perhaps more than anything a temporal condition. As a kind of waiting, the depressive position "is a tolerance of the loss and guilt that underlies the subject’s sense of self—which is to say that it does not avoid or wish away loss and guilt. It is a position in which the subject negotiates reality, resisting the instinct to fall into the delusional realm of the paranoid schizoid." (687) Within this very definition are possibilities for concrete spatial locations that can be further teased out: reality is a negotiation of the potential (the always present instinct) for the fall and the loftiness that inheres in “paranoid,” itself a threat of spatial dislocation from the normative sense of the self and other.
12. This essay does not sufficiently track the rich ways that disability studies has long engaged the construction of the normative body along a 90° axis (often through deconstructing the many biases of canonical phenomenological texts), and a footnote should never be taken as a sign an author is well-versed in the content cited toward therein. The chapter-length version of this article will, however, more thoroughly engage the likes of Helen Meekosha, Jos Boys, Thomas Abrams, Alison Kafer, Claire Edwards and Rob Imrie, Kirstin Marie Bone, Tanya Titchkosky, and others.
13. I am thinking here of Iris Marion Young’s feminist critique of phenomenology, Juana María Rodriguez’s thinking through the queer gesture, and Gayle Salamon bringing critical phenomenology to bear on trans bodies.
14. For Claudia Rankine, the performances, "are notable for their successes in depicting the recognizable outrage and disbelief performed routinely and silently by black women’s bodies given their historical relationship to power...I’m a great fan because [Newsome] enacts Ralph Ellison’s definition of freedom as ‘knowing how to say what I got up in my head.’ Ellison was referring to the act of writing, but Newsome suggests that our body’s stance is all the articulation we need." (in Berlant 2014)
15. A casting call posted on Facebook for a Detroit performance describes how “The artist is driven to create work that serves as an invitation to the art world as well as mainstream audiences to consider elements of cultural production derived from the vernacular of Black, Latino, and LGBTQ subcultures”(DLECTRICITY 2017)
16. In what many saw as a crackdown on African and Afro-Caribbean people and cultures, some French schools moved to ban this very practice of clicking or sucking teeth (known as le tchip).
17. Arneil (2009) has done important work to dislodge the ableist body which is at the center of nearly all discussions of Man and his political outcomes. On the important role affect plays for non-white subjects aligning themselves within regimes of neoliberal commerce, see Ramos-Zayas (2012).
18. My thanks to Shirley Bucknor for her detailed linguistic breakdown of saah, complete with many examples, variations, and exceptions to the rule.
19. Here I’m thinking about feminist and black feminist temporalities reflected in what Berlant (2011) describes as the situation (“something might happen”), what Campt (2017) has described as the future real conditional (“that which will have had to happen”), and Hartman’s (2008) own efforts to “exploit the capacities of the subjunctive” with her critical fabulations.
20. Hartman’s assertion that “The captive female does not possess gender as much as she is possessed by gender—that is, by way of a particular investment in the body” (1997, 100), while referring to antebellum black codes, is generative in the contemporary, as we continue to define, describe, and debate how gender takes shape as political identity.
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Notes on Contributor
Kemi Adeyemi is assistant professor of Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies and Director of The Black Embodiments Studio at the University of Washington, Seattle. Her book manuscript on black queer women’s geographies of neoliberalism is currently in development, and she is in the process of co-editing a volume provisionally titled Queer Nightlife. Adeyemi’s writing has or will appear in GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, Transgender Studies Quarterly, Gulf Coast: A Journal of Literature and Fine Arts, and QED: A Journal of GLBTQ Worldmaking. Her work spans arts audiences as well, and she has contributed exhibition catalog essays for black is a color (Los Angeles, CA), Impractical Weaving Suggestions (Madison, WI), and Endless Flight (Chicago, IL); and writings on artists including Adee Robinson, Amina Ross, Brendan Fernandes, Oli Rodriguez, and Indira Allegra. Adeyemi’s exhibition unstable objects, co-curated with Sampada Aranke, opened at The Alice Gallery in 2017; and her exhibition Feels Right will open at Ditch Projects in September 2019.