Articles

Angel's Basic School

d'bi.young anitafrika and black queer divinity

Note: above, a video of d’bi.young anitafrika giving a talk at Avant Canada: Artists, Prophets, Revolutionaries, a conference held at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, November 4–6, 2014. Alexis Pauline Gumbs responds to the talk in the essay that follows.

 

In the beginning there was the word. And the word was “she,” born from her mother like so many other public prayers. 

d’bi.young anitafrika, daughter of foundational dub poet and scholar Anita Stewart, stands at a lectern that transforms into a pulpit by the first move of her hands (Mac laptop not nearly withstanding). At the same time that anitafrika offers a critique of the repressed lust in the life of the common homosexually active and actively homophobic preacher, she creates a new congregation. She populates the room with young queer beings like her adolescent self, rich with longing and questions, but ignored, when not directly attacked by the figure at the pulpit. anitafrika’s congregation moves out of the church, walks all through the streets, makes out with other little girls at Angel’s Basic School, and bears the internal and external heat of the sun without social recognition, until now. There is transubstantiation here.

Standing, chest open in a conference room, anitafrika has traveled home to Kingston and stolen back her local pulpit into cosmic significance. And then she shifts from her dub conjure voice into an explanatory tone. Describing her own journey from Angel’s Basic School (where the angelic work was the work of girls touching each other and knowing themselves) to this moment of annunciation, weeks after the launch of the the Watah School in the distillery district of Toronto, anitafrika lets us know she has effectively reclaimed pedagogical and spiritual space. This is a pilgrimage from a spiritually violent and homophobic church to a sacred performance space where intersectionally oppressed young people speak their truth and heal each other. From a basic school where girls find each other secretly to a performance incubator where artists use anitafrika’s decade-tested Sorplusi method to learn themselves and their purpose in the context of community and commitment. 

Listening to d’bi.young anitafrika describe the guiding principles of her method (self-knowledge, orality, rhythm, political content and context, language, urgency, sacredness, and integrity), I applaud her for the work of what she calls “redefining performance education.” She honors the elders in her Toronto community of artists of color and her mother’s distillation of the four elements of dub poetry (nation language, music, politics and performance) for allowing her to create a process that empowers artists from multiple oppressed communities. Rejecting an approach that would privilege inclusion in an existing white-dominated theater world, Watah encourages artists to take the stage as themselves. And due to the practice of self-reflection they engage as they work through the questions associated with each of the eight elements of the Sorplusi method, they emerge more clearly in relationship to their own experiences, their purpose on the planet, their role in their communities than they ever could have imagined was permissible or possible.

What would happen if every preacher on every pulpit engaged in equally rigorous self-reflection, dared themselves to risk self-knowledge, and accounted for their impact on their communities? Could homophobia, sexism, internalized racism, even capitalism survive the implementation of the Sorplusi method by the weekly performers on the pulpits of the world? I think of the work of queer black community-accountable preachers like Marvin K. White, who ministers at GLIDE Church and leads poetry workshops on moving trains. I think of Sangodare Julia Roxanne Wallace, who creates sermons in the Southern black Baptist tradition about an infinite inclusive god informed by the tenets of black feminism, afrofuturism, and soul music. anitafrika’s work highlights spiritual conjure work as the legacy that queer black diasporic artists inherit and activate. This is sacred work. It makes another world possible. 

“I will close with a poem,” anitafrika informs the audience. And as she moves away from the lectern into the realm of the gathered chairs to enact “blood.claat,” one of her best-known poems, I can finally see the actual congregation. There are some visibly black people in the front row, leaning forward, and then rows and rows of white people, sometimes shifting nervously in their seats as anitafrika walks up to them and looks them directly in the eye, speaking of the intimacy and power of menstrual blood and the creative power of black women. She names goddesses and remedies and calls multitudes of feminine warriors into the space with her voice. And I remember at this moment, years after this performance, Watah has recently launched another crowd-fund campaign to finance its space after citing racism in its rejection from several important grants that it had depended on for operating costs. I wonder about the disconnect between arts funding and self-reflection. Between sacredness, urgency, and the short attention spans of tokenizing allies. Between the creative power of menstrual cycles and the limitations of funding cycles. 

With that specific performance of “blood.claat” d’bi.young anitafrika sought to enact a chosen creative blood relationship in the pale and climate-controlled space of the conference room. Did it work? I can see from the video that the people are moved. At the moment of this writing the fundraiser is about halfway to its goal. And the sustainability of spaces like Watah beyond their novelty will let us know when the church finally says, AWOMAN, ASHE, so be it, so it is.  

Social media, for social justice

On Erin Wunker's 'Technological Subjects'

Note: above, a video of Erin Wunker giving a talk at Avant Canada: Artists, Prophets, Revolutionaries, a conference held at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, November 4–6, 2014. Lori Emerson responds to Wunker’s talk in the essay that follows. 

 

The moment I sat down to write this response to Erin Wunker’s talk “Technological Subjects: Framing McLuhan in the Twenty-First Century” delivered at the November 2014 Avant Canada conference, I caught myself beginning by half-consciously composing tweets instead of carefully crafted, scholarly sentences: “wishes she could time travel back to nov. ’14 as she reads @erinwunker’s provocative piece on McLuhan & social media.” No, no … how about “grateful for the chance to time-travel back to nov. ’14 — watching & responding to @erinkwunker’s smart talk on McLuhan.” And so on. The point is partly that, precisely as Wunker points out in her talk, “technologies create our relating and they do so quickly and profoundly,” and we are all perpetually in the midst of shaping and being shaped by digital media writing technologies. The point is also that we’re now living through a strange, accelerated, emergent, and flexible kind of temporality, one that makes it possible for me to watch videos of conference talks from over a year ago and feel as if I were in fact able to attend this conference I yearned to go to; to feel as if I were a respondent for one of the papers, and even to write a response to a paper that is, first, a response via Marshall McLuhan to work by photojournalist Rita Leistner that is also a response to McLuhan via the social media platform Instagram, and that is, second, a response via Leistner’s work to a particularly troubling period in time on Twitter (that continues to this day). The circularity, the extent to which we move back and forward in time, reading ourselves into and out of each other and into and out of media, is astounding. And, if I’m understanding Wunker’s paper correctly, the circularity is precisely the point. There’s a porousness now — between us, between us and the media we’re enmeshed in on a daily basis, and between us and institutional structures — that is not only difficult to see and track but that also demands we see ourselves as (sorry) always already impure and implicated.

Let me see if I can be more methodical and less infected by this circularity in my response to Wunker and in laying out what I see as so important in her talk.

She begins by talking about how she proposed a beautifully simple paper for this conference — one that would read particular instances of photojournalism through McLuhan — and about how, in the end, she could not write this paper because the complex reality of the time prohibited such a straightforward analysis. From there, her talk shifts to a discussion of the relevance of McLuhan’s dictum that “all new technologies bring on the cultural blues, just as the old ones evoke phantom pain after they have disappeared” to, first, understand the tension between nostalgia for the old and celebration of the new in Leistner’s Instagram photos of her time spent embedded with the United States Marine Corps, First Battalion, Eighth Marines. Leistner has written that even at the time of taking these iPhone photos she felt as if she were “photographing a memory that wasn’t a memory [she] actually had.” Wunker echoes this sentiment when she describes the strange collapse that exists on Instagram between fiction and reality, past and present, subject and object; she says these photos don’t capture an object so much as they act as poetic, McLuhanesque probes into the difficulty of tracing inside and outside, figure and ground, each a part of a “resonating relationship.”

But the most provocative turn in Wunker’s talk comes when she shifts her discussion of photojournalism via Instagram and McLuhan to that other, only apparently text-based social media platform: Twitter. After observing that Twitter functions much like a photographic image generator in its supply of a never-ending stream of image-texts fit into a rapid succession of regular, rectangular rolling snapshots, she reminds us of the McLuhan dictum she opened with to consider the following: in the wake of the latest round of cultural blues brought on by the misogynist backlash against feminism that’s made itself most visible through vile hashtags such as #gamergate, #antifeminist, #feminazi, #sjw, #cuck (and I don’t recommend researching these hashtags too thoroughly), what constitutes an effective intervention? Is any attempt on Twitter to thwart further gender- or race- based violence by appropriating hashtags or staging crowd-sourcing projects only an enactment of yet more cultural blues? If Leistner’s photographs are the ideal, images self-consciously poised at the boundary of any number of resonating relationships, what might be the equivalent on Twitter?

After listening to Wunker’s talk, I think one solution she points to — simply and brilliantly echoing Donna Haraway’s work on “Situated Knowledges” from the late 1980s — is that perhaps we should concern ourselves less with tit-for-tat tactics and more with situating ourselves on social media, as beings utterly entwined with social media. Taking account of the way we exceed any boundary is a strategy that does not naively limit itself to trying to win an unwinnable debate at the level of pure content, but instead disrupts the entire structure supporting such “debate” by operating on a more wide-seeing register where form and content, medium and message, sender and receiver are constantly shaping and informing and implicating each other. As Haraway herself puts it, if we have, finally, “no clear and distinct ideas,” then our work instead is to track how the technologies we use are themselves “skilled practices” which should in turn lead us to ask ourselves: “How to see? Where to see from? What limits to vision? What to see for? Whom to see with? Who gets to have more than one point of view? Who gets blinded? Who wears blinders? Who interprets the visual field?” If we can answer these questions, maybe, just maybe, we’ll have a cure for the cultural blues.

Theorizing the alphabet

On Steve McCaffery's 'Nichol's Graphic Cratylism'

Note: above, a video of Steve McCaffery giving a talk at Avant Canada: Artists, Prophets, Revolutionaries, a conference held at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, November 4–6, 2014. Rachel Blau DuPlessis responds to McCaffery’s talk in the essay that follows. 

 

Whenever Steve McCaffery talks, he opens areas of and occasions for research into poetry and poetics. Here he enters simultaneously into the career of bpNichol (his sometime collaborator until Nichol’s untimely and tragic death in 1988) and into the fraught question of the origins of written language. Nichol, a prodigiously creative poet and performer, original and boundless, seems to have cultivated a wild and naïve persona, and a casual, open-hearted approach to his multifarious creative occasions. McCaffery’s goal (here and elsewhere) has been to articulate the informed, analytic, and theoretical claims that — he avers — were always present in and underlying Nichol’s work. In this suggestive intervention, McCaffery proposes that Nichol drew upon Alfred Kallir’s Sign and Design: The psychogenetic source of the alphabet — a book to which Nichol alludes on two occasions, and one that McCaffery and Jed Rasula include in their dazzling Imagining Language: An Anthology. McCaffery proposes that Kallir’s psychosexual theories of visual origins of writing informed Nichol’s experiments with concrete poetry and vispo, with wordplay, with the translation of letters into words, and essentially infused his “Cratylan” propensities to claim that names (words) were natural, not conventional signs. That last alludes to a much-debated dialogue in the Socratic canon concerning the origins of names and the relationship of word and thing. Nichol tried always to reject any split (some kind of original fall or flaw) between word and world (word and thing), and to affirm the Cratylan position — that words and things are originally the same. In all his work Nichol was “prelapsarian” — he attempted to reunify signifier and signified by (in McCaffery’s mot) “playfulness as epistemology.” Among these efforts, visual text work was essential to the deep materiality of language in and as writing.

McCaffery’s appeal in the name of Nichol to the hermetic (McCaffery would say “natural”) wing of linguistics has been an aspect of his work for years: the paragrammic claims of Saussure, the sexualization of the alphabet and its basis in our organic body beyond the eye-ear split (as in Kallir), the ludic charms of Nichol’s generative experiments with the “patter of letter feet” are all swirled together in a deft metonymic chain of linguistic speculation. The Cratylan nugget — that words are not conventional sounds attached to things, but instead had their long-ago origins in things (tracked via etymology) — is highly debatable, half-plausible, and magical.

The way Kallir seems to cover (in both senses) the discrepancy between word and thing is to propose that writing emerged from a collective unconscious as a “magical chain of procreative symbols necessary for human survival.” Anything appealing to a collective unconscious is both a yearning point and an unprovable one. Here is the moment for a timeline, extracted from the Smithsonian’s timeline of humans: 1) emergence of the first humans 1.8 million years ago, along with control of fire; 2) homo sapiens and Neanderthals [among others?] 800,000–200,000 years ago, and a period of rapid brain expansion; 3) 250,000–30,000 years ago “symbolic culture” emerges, illustrated by a fertility icon; 4) 12,000 years ago emergence of agriculture; 5) 4,500 years ago — writing emerges. The gap between human beings and then symbolic culture and then writing is such that almost any theory of writing’s origins could be hypothesized. Symbolic culture is attached to fertility — but also presumably to burial and to certain crafts (pots for storage of grain and of the dead). 

McCaffery’s short essay is quite culture-bound, but charming in its arousing feeling that McCaffery, or Nichol, or Kallir, or someone has finally activated ultimate ground, ultimate origin, in evoking the origins or basis or primal necessity as implicit in every alphabetic sign. This means a symbolic reading of alphabetic signs as if pictographs: in the manly tip of impregnation (the upside down A), the open womb of the letter C, the pregnant woman in letter D, the swollen breasts of the letter B, the cunt-cuneiform of the letter V, and the penis and balls (or was that the moment of impregnation?) of letter Y. When you are inside these claims, it’s a bit like reading your horoscope or wearing healing crystals — every speculation always seems right. Or, to say it another way — how can wrongness or rightness ever be proven? There are both other languages (many) and other sign systems for conveying language (many). If the theories are suggestive and have given “metaphors for poetry” to the fecund and important creator Nichol, why not? We must be happy that Kallir was on Nichol’s shelf and that years later McCaffery discusses, as relevant to Nichol, the mysteries of our medium, starting with the alphabet and going into rare points of allegorical reading and pictographic magic. We watch (on YouTube) the McCafferyian philological and bibliomantic sleight of hand, temporarily disinterested that this claim is bound to one linked version of the origins of our letters (in Egyptian-Hebrew-Phoenician-Greek-Latin) and that it is so culture-bound to our writing system as to constitute an explosive blind spot. And why not “the English letter as a medium for poetry”? Happy, happy Anglophones! That this theorizing about the alphabet is cheerfully sexual just makes Nichol’s own lowercase initials interestingly androgynous. Good for him, one wants to say. Let that penis inseminate as many womb-breasts as it wants! No little puppies were hurt in the making of this movie. It was only, sadly, much too short. One remains free to speculate about the very dazzling, startling, and probably unfixable origins of languages, writing systems, and all their human varieties from evidence of all kinds. And we can give thanks for all kinds of poetics drawing on many theories of language while at the same time thanking McCaffery for his always generous and emancipatory reading of Nichol’s work. 

Reloading the canon

On Lillian Allen and the history of dub

Note: above, a video of Lillian Allen giving a talk at Avant Canada: Artists, Prophets, Revolutionaries, a conference held at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, November 4–6, 2014. Sarah Dowling responds to Allen’s talk in the essay that follows.

 

“Let me ask you to consider the ideological agenda in claiming poetry for one section of society.” Lillian Allen’s provocative performance-talk pierces the business-as-usual of literary communities, literary criticism, and of literariness itself. She reviews the occluded history of dub poetry — a form of performance poetry known for its musicality and its overt politics — and examines its incredible but too-often-unattributed legacies. Allen asks a number of crucial questions: If more people than ever are creating poetry, why have critics excluded the most widely practiced forms — particularly spoken word — from the category of poetry itself? Why has dub poetry, which laid the groundwork for spoken word, been excluded from literary history? The answer, of course, is that racism, and its unvoiced, scribal, and whitewashed picture of the literary, has consequences. If this is all marginalized people see, Allen asks, “where will they find their possibility of making a poem?”

Allen’s talk begins and ends with vivid and energetic recitations of her poems — for anyone unfamiliar with her work, her prodigious use of repetition and vocalized breaths show just how much poets and critics are missing when we ignore dub. One of the opening poems prominently features the line “Black voice kyan hide,” and throughout her talk Allen emphasizes the ways in which dub poetry has provided a process for coming out of hiding and into voice. Dub asserts the right to exist, and calls for a change to “the claustrophobic narrative” of being poor, marginalized, and oppressed. This change is enacted through dub’s disruption of established discourse and its elevation of vernacular language into art. In its calls for unity, for aesthetic satisfaction, for more accountability, more individuality, and more democracy, dub poetry provides recognition, validation, and perhaps most crucially the potential for participation. “Don’t we, too, deserve poetry?” Allen asks, aligning herself with the communities addressed in and activated through her work.    

A key theme of Allen’s talk is the impact that dub has had on North American poetry and poetics. “To be able to create forms and new types of languages is, in itself, amazing,” she explains. Allen traces the roots of dub through the collaborative exchanges between marginalized poets Walt Whitman and Langston Hughes, but places greatest emphasis on the influences of Jamaican performance poet Louise Bennett and world-renowned reggae innovator Bob Marley. While dub is often misunderstood as reggae sans music, Allen explains that dub captures the spirit of reggae, but exists separately from it as poetry. Another common misconception is that dub poets are “just” rapping, but Allen states that dub, which crystalized in the early 1970s, was actually a source for certain Brooklyn rappers. With these entwined musical and literary roots and legacies, Allen shows that dub cannot be adequately explained by literary theory. Instead, dub is an expansion and invigoration of the idea of poetry — one that resonates with what many people want to hear and want to say. The flourishing of voice-based poetries in Canada, the US, and the Anglophone Caribbean is its powerful legacy.   

Dub, like all significant art forms, provides a platform, a place where “word chatterers” can use their voices to think in public, with a community, about the conditions in which we all live. When Allen asks, “what does a voice become when it stands / when it stands / for something?” she reveals what is critical about dub: in it, the voice opens into a full range of sounds, and expands beyond the signifying power of language into bodily rhythms (riddims). Dub is a poetry of possibility; it invites listeners to become cocreators of meaning, and of new poems. As the great dub poet Mutabaruka puts it in one of his best-known works, “dis poem is to be continued in your mind.”

Allen recounts the early days of dub and explains that the poets “were never gonna stop until this type of poetry became part of Canadian culture.” Dub poets haven’t stopped, so now we must own up to the way that poetry is continuously claimed “for one section of society.” When dub is cropped out of the frame, our sense of poetry narrows — and it becomes dangerously pale. Forgetting dub makes poetry worse, but forget poetry: an ideological agenda that favors the pale wrecks and ends lives. Part of dismantling white supremacy might involve listening to what dub poets have been saying all along. We need to heed dub’s message and craft a new ideological agenda for our aesthetics. 

The call to be disobedient

On Michael Nardone

Note: above, a video of Michael Nardone giving a talk at Avant Canada: Artists, Prophets, Revolutionaries, a conference held at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, November 4–6, 2014. Stephen Collis responds to Nardone’s talk in the essay that follows.

 

 

We are at an interesting historical juncture. Governments, acting, as usual, as agents for industry and capital accumulation, are fiddling with the dials controlling communicative acts, trying to squelch (as in “suppress the output” of) the frequencies of dissent, or else simply decreeing them (via legislation, in Canada, like Bill C-51) the noise of terrorism, “full of sound and fury / signifying nothing.”

This is the moment within which Michael Nardone seizes those dials, and tunes us into the particular disruptions of the Idle No More round dances. I will make three brief points. 

1. 

If we are going to be persuaded that there is a link between the “sonic and spatial” disruptions of the Idle No More protests — which took up the space of consumption (shopping malls during the Christmas season) and distribution (highways and train tracks) with drumming, singing, and dancing — and the idea of an “avant-garde,” then we will need to reorient our definition of radical aesthetic practices. This is exactly what Nardone is after. I would proffer the simple notion that an avant-garde practice is one that is oriented towards social change (whether that orientation is carried out via formal maneuvers or direct and deictic acts of social pointing). I might also add that this “orientation” is best (most appropriately, now, under current conditions) made within (adapting Jodi Dean’s phrase) a communist horizon — that is, a maneuver or pointing towards a destination the horizon of which is a complete transformation of social relations. 

Nardone cites Dene scholar Glen Coulthard, who links decolonization with anticapitalism. I think Coulthard has just this idea of an orientation within a communist (anticapitalist) horizon in mind, as he suggests that Indigenous blockades and interventions like Idle No More have both negative (disruption, rupture) and positive (the proposition of an Indigenous alternative behind the blockade or within the round dance) functions. I think we do have to be wary of subsuming anticolonial movements and acts within a European/colonial matrix (thus I myself am reluctant to deploy terms like avant-garde anymore) — but I also think we can work from an anticolonial ground towards new ways of orienting social art practices.

2.

Nardone also reorients the avant-garde around the notion of the “call to arms.” I am reminded here of Howard Caygill’s argument about the call in On Resistance, which he links to Indigenous resistance via the Zapatistas’ much-remarked use of the genre of the call. Unlike the historical avant-garde’s manifesto, the “call to resistance,” Caygill argues, “does not come from a problematically constituted subject of speech” — “calls to resistance on the whole come from nowhere” and “are not directed to a defined public. They perform a capacity to resist which, once declared, is actualized.”[1] I read the call to be “Idle No More” this way (who is the subject of this call exactly?) — and I think it is more productively disruptive, in Nardone’s sense, when it is this open and ubiquitous: Idle No More, while clearly “Indigenous,” was received and responded to by a “public” that included many who were not Indigenous, and it burst out into spaces that strictly Indigenous protests had not accessed before (shopping malls). 

A manifesto usually comes from a particular, specified body promulgating the manifesto, and is typically intended to express the intents and purposes of that body. A call to be “Idle No More” is, potentially, harder for the state to squelch, harder to return to a status of mere noise. 

3.

“It is, finally, to argue that any conception of an ‘avant-garde’ in Canada that attacks only the institution of art, only aesthetic praxis — stopping short of the structures that circumscribe that institution and that praxis — will not suffice” (Michael Nardone).

I think I am repeating my first point — switching the dial noisily backwards. Ultimately, what Nardone calls for is an entirely new definition of the avant-garde — one in which the idea that certain aesthetic practices might cease to count as works at all is turned on its head, so that the ceasing to count as artworks (alone) reveals a becoming of something else — a breaking forth of collective struggle in the midst of material matrices of production. It is an old idea, somewhere near the core of what we now think of as avant-garde — that art and life, aesthetics and struggle, become indistinguishable — that we make our resistance as we would a work of art, and that we make our works of art as we do our resistance — that there is no moment when we are not artists, not resistant, and not building a new world of justice from within the ruins of the old world of oppression.

The question I’m left with is: does the term “avant-garde” do any productive, liberatory work anymore? 



1. Howard Caygill, On Resistance: A Philosophy of Defiance (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013), 192.