Book Review: Fred Moten In the Break

Fred Moten’s In the Break:The Aesthetics of A Black Radical Tradition opens for “a way to disrupt the totalizing force of the primality” of the scenes of violence upon Blackness to subject “this unavoidable model of subjection to a radical breakdown?”(5) For, if writing is “marked by the possibility of variation,” does each recitation necessarily dictate return? (125) “Improvisation” is that mode of art and politics — the disruption that works within/disrupts traditions/frames  with revolutionary spontaneity. Moten’s book cannot be summarized, for like revolutions, it has many “false starts” and tangents that sputter off and later resurface. The first chapter moves through the primal scene of violence in Fredrick Douglass’s autobiography, Hartman’s choice not to represent the scene in her analysis of it, Moten’s critique of Marx’s critique of the silent commodity by showing laborers and slaves as “commodities,” Taylor, and other texts. Moten chooses to represent the scene in the chapter that Hartman rejects, asking what even the denial of representation produces. The discussion of improvisation in the second chapter strays and moves through Moten’s ambivalent relationship with Amiri Baraka and his dissatisfaction with Dada Black Nihilism, through The Dark Lady (the crack in Billie Holiday’s voice, the “phenomenon of the remainder” (119) in Shakespeare) possibilities for pleasure and pain, returning back to Baraka. The third chapter tackles the subordination of the “aural” to the “visual,” even as a psychoanalytic concept of the suture, by rejecting primacy of visualization of the sign in criticism (Lee Edelman, for example), by reading the affective effects of photography in the shrieking photos of Emmett Titt’s corpse. The chapter performs how a black aesthetic tradition resists (non-maternal) psychoanalysis in that it “destabilizes the very idea of — need or desire — for suture” (178). Finally, Moten closes out with “glancing” as aversion in “contrast” to the desiring gaze, returning again to the subject of objecthood/subjectivity. He reads how Adrian Piper’s performance art highlights the beholder in such a way that “reanimates” the object as a form of resistance. This list of Moten’s texts is not exhaustive.

The book’s ending joins Adrian Piper with Aunt Hester’s screams, returning to blackness as “testament to the fact that objects can and do resist” (1). Yet here Moten inadequately addresses the female black body. Piper’s performance art and Douglas’s representation of Aunt Hester differ in that the words/actions/contexts that animate these texts. To put that another way, Aunt Hester perhaps has agency in her screams but not in her nephew’s decision to write them — a criticism not directed at Douglas, but at In the Break’s gap in analysis. On another (blue) note, Moten’s definition of black history as black performance, as the “aesthetic, political, sexual, and racial force, the ensemble of objects” (7) that animates materiality provides a way to understand what it “means” to be Black in America beyond the histories of trauma of slavery. In other words, what affirmation is there in being Black outside histories of struggle? Indeed, while that question is specific to Blackness, one can ask of much of our political milieu “what does it mean to be an oppressed identity outside of suffering?” Moten asks “what does it mean to suffer from political despair when your identity is bound up with utopian political aspirations and desires?…What is the relation between political despair and mourning?” (93). My follow-up question: how are “we” to organize strategically, whomever “we” may “be”?  If the answer is “improvisation,” than politically the implication seems to include knowing “music” in order to “swing it,” coordinate with your ensemble to know when to sing and when to step back, and practice blues scales (first grating to the ear) in order to truck with the discord of major/minor, pain/pleasure, in the same disharmonious melody.