Lectures and Overview: Hesitant Sociology: Blackness and Poetry

Fred Moten teaches in the Department of Performance Studies in the Tisch School of the Arts, New York University. His field are black studies and critical theory and his special concern is the entanglement of social movement and aesthetic experiment.

The Lectures

The three Flexner Lectures:

  • Oct. 28: sol aire ​
  • Mar. 16: abduction and adduction 
  • Mar. 23: maps, territories (registration closed)

Fred Moten on "Hesitant Sociology"

When poetry is considered not only as the written cultivation of what Amiri Baraka called “musicked speech,” but also as the generalized making of a living, in an ongoing attempt to socialize rather than monopolize the capacity to live beyond our means, then it is possible to situate another poetics as the open surround of traditional intellectual discourse. That poetics—or those poetics, neither singular nor plural being really appropriate here—assumes the seriousness and richness of aesthetic endeavor that emerges, as it were, both before and after the subject and his objects. The lectures that comprise Hesitant Sociology: Blackness and Poetry are concerned with non-subjective, non-objective approach, which is as evident in cinema, music and visual art as it is in verse even if conventional aesthetic (and, for that matter, social scientific discourse) is constrained by its inability so to assume. What usually follows from such constraint are critical dismissals of the merely sociological in black art, or empiricist relegation of the aesthetic to a zone of apolitical illegitimacy, or disavowals of the alternative that just as often take the form of critiques as they do take the form of defenses of authenticity. What if the aesthetics of the black radical tradition aspire/s to a mode of sociology that is, in turn, only achievable by way of and as the expression of an active experimental poetics?

In the first lecture, which is entitled: sol aire,” I’ll try to linger with solidaire and solitaire as Édouard Glissant uses these terms in Poetique de la Relation and to explore what Sylvia Wynter would call Glissant’s social poiesis by way of an insight given in the extraordinary syncopation of Hortense Spillers’ exposition of flesh in Arthur Jafa’s film Dreams are Colder than Death. I will discuss empathy as epistemological protocol and feel as sociological method while considering how they might be manifest even in certain ideas regarding maps, charts and other infographic modes that form part of sociology’s and poetry’s methodological, topographical endowment.

The second lecture, “abduction and adduction,” takes up Denise Ferreira da Silva’s engagement, by way of the work of Octavia Butler, with mathematics in the development of her “black feminist poethics.” I am interested in trying to understand and practice, with her guidance, a topographical—as apposed to a strictly arithmetical or geometrical—approach to black social and aesthetic life. I will consider resistance to the consecutive and the separable in her work and will be concerned with ways of articulating what Karen Barad might call the “intra-action” of capture, solitude, solidarity, embrace, release, presencing and exodus. I will do so while remarking upon the coincidence of Silva’s and Joan Retallack’s apparently divergent appeals to the notion of a “feminist poethics.”

With the final lecture, “maps, territories,” comes a return to Wynter and cartography that moves, at first, by way of a practice that poet Cecily Nicholson and geographer Katherine McKittrick share. At stake are various modalities of celebration and social distribution: the work of market women and conjure women and warrior women will come into focus through the opacity of Wynter’s massive contribution. Maps and territories invoke chorography and choreography, as well as alternative, choral modalities of utterance. I will try to (move in the) approach a poetics, shared in rich differentiation, by M. NourbeSe Philip’s audiovisual overtones and the interinanimative game of breath that is played in Inuit throat singing, especially as practiced and theorized by Karin and Kathy Kettler. I’ll return to questions concerning solitude, solidarity and the dictation and recording of history in/and the present in the interest of a mutuality of approach in precarious natality that the places called “Canada” and “the Caribbean” might be said to share. What lies (not-in-)between them might be a zone and a practice of embrace, touch, gesture, and breath which Wynter, I think, imagines blackness and indigeneity to share, perhaps even in the refusal of the distinction between walking, making and charting our way.

The lectures are meant to be both serial and palimpsestic. They follow one another on an ungraded curve, as circular breathing into and out of the works they engage, but also as a set of transparencies meant to form and illuminate new constellations as they are layered over one another in anarchic, anti-hierarchical fusion and refusal. The titles suggest a practical approach to each instance of repetition or re-visitation. The works/artists will be continually (re-)read by way of these rubrics, which present challenges to one another, disturbing any sense of their completeness or of the completeness of the works/artists. In turn the works will always be challenging not so much the efficacy but the definitional limits of these key terms. Each lecture also proceeds by attending to a rhythmic subtlety at the heart of its title. The caesura, the conjunction and the comma are forms of hesitation that might allow us not only to study but also to join what W. E. B. Du Bois, in his 1905 essay “Sociology Hesitant,” calls “the incalculable rhythm of human action.” We will consider the ways of sociological and sociographical (an)notation, given in and demanded by the richness of black social life, that are at our disposal when calculation and (ac)countability break down in the quantum social realm where poetics and study are inseparable.