Commentaries

Calling a Koons a Koons

Little Mermaid Koons {poetics lab simulation]

 Allegorical micturition has swept
the guest halls of the art galleries
and the undermasses
wail in the background to iambic
beat. Sludge is proclaimed sludge,
hairdos hors d’oeuvres, as the soiled
face of inverted cardioerasty—a.k.a.
genital fetish—rears its mushy brow.
––from “Ambliopia” in The Sophist (1987)

 The Jeff Koons retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art is to big art shows what The Little Mermaid is to big Broadway musicals: bright, breezy, and tuneless. Koons's art is a product of the Disnification of Warhol (and decidedly not the other way around). The show is worthwhile seeing as a monument to the most commercially successful aspects of the New York art market. As with the proverbial Chinese restaurant, with food shot up with MSG, you leave the show aesthetically hungry.

Bronzing your child’s baby shoes is here is monumentalized and monetized into the narcissism of bronzing your own phallus or shit (that is to say, your own infantile and adolescent fetishes). For those of us who love to love kitsch, Koons’s art is a slap in the face. Like the invisible worm in Blake’s “The Sick Rose,” he’s found our bed of crimson joy and his dark secret love has our fetish destroyed. 

[image on left is a poetics lab simulation]

The worst thing in the show is not by Koons at all: it is the curator's wall description of Koon’s pornographic photos, famously featuring the artist himself with his sex-star then wife. I didn’t note the exact words, but the implication is that standard-issue “straight” porn challenges our idea of art, the body, gender. In other words, that these images have redeeming social value – a claim that voids whatever might be significant about these works in a museum show. (Adolescent boys everywhere will now be able to tell their mothers, “I am looking at my Koonses!” I am going to take an leap and say that some of the corporate and individual underwriters of this show are the same ones who declared the old Times Square a scourge: the issue was not the porn but its patrons; evidently museum goers know how to look at this stuff with a class not available to the hoi polloi. Who says this show isn’t political?)

However, the most revealing works in the show come at the beginning: a set of mounted advertisements that resist aesthetic reframing. These works don’t do anything, think anything, or symbolize anything. They don't rearticulate, they sell. These works are not about transvaluation of the aesthetic kind but, in contrast, transvaluation of the monetary kind: printing your own paper currency and cashing it in at the bank. For this reason, more important than visual image is the collector’s imprint: JPMorgan Chase. Which is not to say the appropriated ads are without visual content: I was chilled by racial voyeurism of the works, which featured financially successful black athletes.

 The Koons show turns on a simple but potent idea: the alchemy of turning base material into gold. (Who can resist the illuminated vacuum cleaners and floating basketballs?) Artnet reports that the total value of the work shown – Koons is the most commercially successful living American artist – is about one-half billion U.S. dollars. Viewers get to see the highest end art commodities in a show that is not only co-sponsored by Christie’s but is installed to look like an auction showroom. At the same time, the show fails to fully acknowledge that the titillation of Koons’s sale prices is far greater than the tease of the pornographic display (the real here is not sex but money). The show would have framed the work in a far more radical way if it included price tags next to each work. After all, nothing commands as much respect in America as money and there is an undeniable pleasure in seeing nearly worthless everyday objects and toys of our lives transvalued in this way.

Alchemists turned base metal to gold while Koons turns base objects – inflatable plastic toys being his main obsession – into metal. This reverse alchemy (plastic or plasticine to metal) is marvelous and mischievous. What gives the show its uncanny panache is the trompe l’oeil of the thin metal surface of Koon’s sculptures. Even knowing the objects are metal, it is impossible to believe without touching. The desire to touch is so great that the museum had to close a room the night I was there. You can only touch if you buy: for the rest of us it’s a peep show. The technical ingenuity here, and the giddiness of response, brings to mind something akin to experience of going to a DuPont pavilion at the world’s fair. Koons’s choice of images is secondary to the technical feat.

 The most delightful room of the show is the one that features Koonsifications of baroque Roman sculpture. (Mónica de la Torre took  this picture of  me –– on the right --  in front of one of the works in this room.) Seeing Bernini’s rendering of drapery into marble is a marvel not entirely unlike Koon’s rendering of plasticoids into metaloids.

We hit pay dirt with the grand finale, Koons’s mountain of play dough. The New York Times review calls this work an "almost certain masterpiece” – a remarkable description for what is, at base, a bronzed pile of excrement.

It is too bad for Koons and the Whitney that this shows opens in the shadow of Kara Walker’s "A Subtlety" at Domino Sugar Factory, because Walker shows how public, grandly entertaining art can be self-reflective, politically acute, and aesthetically rich. In contrast, Koon’s just wants to play in art’s kiddie pool, call it Peter Pandering.  Of course, that’s what gives this show its uneasy allure.

Marthe Reed: three poems from 'Nights Reading'

[Scheduled for publication September 1 by Lavender Ink in New Orleans: a major coming forth]

 

GAZING AT PLUMS

 

Though the reasonable man does not have doubts, the condition of woman is
perhaps less certain. A question of where

 

A box of pens, a wooden bowl, desk littered in open books: the uncertain truth of
propositions

 

Light penetrates the shadow of night jade. A hawk rending the black-flecked back
of a bear. Can we rely on our senses?

 

A prescription of dialogue. Such talk gets it’s meaning from the correspondence
between doubt and longing

 

Explanations signal: a book of fables, illustrated herbals. The interchangeable
nature of service and servitude demands precision, the roots, red and potent as
the flowers 

 

Scheherazade’s inventions. She prepares a tisane of chamomile, dried quince
flowers. Though it is not a matter of seeing

 

An open field, a page of writing. To confirm an hypothesis, again and again  

 

Does she have a body? Married to interrogation, herself predicated on the
firmness of flesh, her teeth tearing through it, the sweetness of its juice

 

A place she enters into

 

SLAVE OF DESIRE


At the feet of the king, her body “less and worse than nothing”

 

She incites the space around her

 

Blue walls of the bedchamber border the chronicle she narrates

 

Fragment and calyx: he takes her to bed

 

ش

 

In response to such bluntness, we must enter by force of imagination. The heart
of the rose opens

 

Like wine poured from a silver ewer

 

Dizzy with delight, we wonder, what was she saying?

 

Threaded texts of the loom lining a room, master and slave abandon their
accustomed roles. In a certain sense invisible

 

Her finger traces the circumference of his eyes, his lips, curve of an ear

 

Whispers, like a muezzin’s blessings. He will not

 

Woman and scheming inseparable

 

Narratives bend upon themselves, refusing source and closure

 

ش

 

No teleology, “A cup of wine, oh beloved?”  He cannot answer, his grief
manufactured and reproducible

 

She dips her fingers into the cup. “I shall tell you a story”

 

The immodest splendor in which she subsists. Beneath such petals he does not,
or cannot, speak

 

A tailor, a hunchback, a bite of fish, a cunning wife. Displacing the traumatic
thing, night jasmine enters through an open window. He can no longer control
the foci of his attention

 

Still he is caught, neither inscribed nor spoken. Yet

 

ش

 

Dawn rescinds night’s license. Another code, another bed, proposing temporary
reprieve

 

If he must have her, what will she do with him?

 

A jew, a muslim, a christian, a king, the possibilities apparently endless. The
thirteen versions, each verse more fantastic than the last

 

Language nourishes a lack for which it is the only recourse 

SCHEHERAZADE

What will happen this time? You never can tell. Let’s see how it begins.
‒ Italo Calvino

a disclosure, silk’s transparency

how can he contain himself

 

though the invitation into the text is conditional

curiously preemptive

 

the king and his bride in the dark

manipulating continuity

 

more elaborate and more ornamented

inducing a state of disequilibrium

 

her leitmotif

she reappears

 

tarot cards: Calvino unable to begin

she unable to stop

 

her jeweled bodice

her flowing trousers

 

Ars combinatoria

or thematic rubrics

 

her laughter adduces a lyric analog

four notes of a descending scale

 

coherence a matter of repetition

waves growing and retreating

 

Lento
then Allegro molto

no obvious point of arrival

her true genius

 

deftly tying everything together

will you write this down?

 

a jest

yet in the pas de deux, he ravishes her

 

calligraphy haunting the text

the delicacy of her limbs

 

the probability of his embrace

a woman in possession of her head

 

enumerative

plays upon your memory

 

“eager to know”

she swoons expectantly

 

“what comes next”

an arbitrary convenience

 

that much we were certain of

absent from both the frame and the framed

 

not a narrative

an occasion :: gravitas and ego 

 

what music, what frame?

her Shariyar

 

subdued and tormented, into the interstices

“you turn the book over in your hand”

 

gesturing at certainty

themes and variation

 

beyond doubt an oriental narrative
Scheherazade

her stern husband
:: an ordered repetition

[NOTE.  Of the preceding poems & of the work as a whole, by way of a poetics: “Engagements with the Thousand and One Nights, gender, narration, and Sir Richard Burton, as well as other writers’ takes on the story-cycle, the collection is marriage of several impulses, coalescing upon the nature of narrative and Scheherazade as narrator.  The original story cycle posits Scheherazade as redeemer of not only herself and her sister virgins of the kingdom, but of just rule and King Shariyar’s humanity; the poems explore tropes of gender and of the seemingly powerless (women, slaves, blacks) to erode and challenge the status quo.”  Scheduled for publication later this year by Lavender Ink.]

Black W/Holes: A History of Brief Time, Part 2 of 2

Cover of FUSE Magazine, 1998, courtesy of fusemagazine.org
Cover of FUSE Magazine, 1998, courtesy of fusemagazine.org

What follows is Part 2 of 2 of M. NourbeSe Philip’s essay, “Black W/Holes: A History Of Brief Time,” which combines definitions from Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time with an urgent discussion about race relations in Canada and beyond in the late 1990s. This essay was originally published in Toronto’s FUSE Magazine in 1998. After sending Philip my commentary, “Physics of the Impossible,” which speculatively discusses her book-length poem Zong! (Wesleyan University Press, 2008) in relation to Albert Einstein’s theories of relativity, she sent me this essay. Since it only appears in the back issue of FUSE, I am presenting it here with her permission.

Part 1 of 2 can be found here.

* * *

Black W/Holes: A History Of Brief Time (1998)
By M. NourbeSe Philip
Part 2 of 2 

white dwarf: A stable cold star, supported by the exclusion principle repulsion between electrons.

in the brave and oh so new world where africans have no agency—can be bought or sold at will, they turn their eyes to that large undifferentiated space lacking any particularity for them. the singularity to the north called canada, at the end of the north star. where harriet tubman took her people and “never lost a single passenger.” they was going to do some walking, these africans, out of slavery. into freedom. or so they thought. into the space called canada. 

this space called canada is not a white, virgin space. it never was. it is a space that was initially inhabited by brown peoples. and continues to be. the black presence—the african presence—has been here for a very long time—indeed ever since the blackman, matthew da costa, arrived with Samuel de Champlain in 1605. the space that is canada is linked to the black world, the african world as a space of refuge, hope and new beginnings, all too often unrealized.  during the american revolution the crown promises freedom and land in canada to africans who would flee their owners and fight on the side of the loyalists.  they receive their freedom and land; often it is the most barren land and their presence in this space is neither valued or wanted. in 1796 the colonial government of jamaica grows tired of trying to keep control of the maroons and ships them to nova scotia. once again freedom proves to be a mirage for africans—eventually the maroons emigrate to sierra leone. it is a space—this space called canada—enlarged by appetite—salted, east coast cod is sent to the caribbean to feed the bodies of enslaved africans; in return hogsheads of rum are shipped back to the east coast. for free europeans. the appetite for cheap labour: african caribbean men join their nova scotian brothers in the mines of sydney. in ontario african caribbean women enter the space we call canada as cheap domestic labour. doing work white women will not do.

mass: The quantity of matter in a body; its inertia, or resistance to acceleration.

Canada remains the place to which people flee. Good guys fleeing bad guys; bad guys fleeing good guys; white draft dodgers fleeing their abbreviated futures in the jungles of Viet Nam; some Black draft dodgers; wealthy businessmen and women who can buy Canadian passports. You name it, there’s always a good reason to head for Canada.  These people never go to Vancouver, or Toronto, or Sudbury. At least as represented in the movies.  Sometimes—very sometimes—they go to Montreal which is French and, therefore, not really Canada after all. It is that undifferentiated mass—the same mass that Africans set out for a long long time ago—that is the space of Canada they head for. It is a space of becoming. All things to all people. Canadians on the other hand almost always never head for the United States, preferring instead LA or San Francisco, or New York or Chicago. Unless you're Black of course, and you’re going Stateside. Which is a very different country.

weight: the force exerted on a body by a gravitational field. It is proportional to, but not the same as, its mass.

I am at a resort in the Hockley Valley—the land around it has been reshaped with the golfer in mind. There is an abundance of open space carefully mowed and shaped into an eighteen—hole golf course. Here white men get to drive around in little, white buggies (often followed by their women, also in little white buggies); they jump out, hit little, white balls around the green expanse, then jump back into their little, white buggies and drive off. The sense of expansive entitlement is palpable.  

It is a very white space. Tiger Woods notwithstanding.

The buffet style meals continue this theme of largesse and plenitude bringing out the gluttonous, all-you-can-eat side in me. 

It is the same approach of that quintessential marauder, the European, to the world. Eat all you can. It is the same approach the multinationals, supported by the “clubbers-of-eight” to the world today. The world and its resources have become a smorgasbord, a buffet, at which they are each expected to consume all that they can, go back for seconds, thirds and fourths, and hang the consequences.

The flash-point of the 1992 Oka crisis lay in an attempt by white Canadians to expand a golf course. Into an area that had spiritual significance for the First Nations people in Quebec. So that white men with their gulf clubs could run around in little, white carts, hitting little, white balls. Frances Cress Welsing, the African American psychologist, has argued that there is symbolic social and racial significance in the kinds of balls used in sports  It is no coincidence, she suggests, that golf—a game involving little, white balls played over a vast expanse of land, is traditionally the elite sport favoured by rich, white men, and from which Black men have also traditionally been excluded.

So powerful is the sense of white space, I hesitate to walk on the green, walk instead on the paved roads linking these eighteen holes. My black and female body vibrates with the question: am I allowed?  Not so my companion who is white and male. He too, although not a golfer, shares in this aura of entitlement. The space is his to occupy. Which is a microcosm of how our peoples inhabit this space that is canada. One with a sense of entitlement—even greater than that of the First Nations people; the other with a sense of being allowed in on sufferance.  

strong force: The strongest of the four fundamental forces, with the shortest range of all.  It holds the quarks together within protons and neutrons, and holds the protons and neutrons together to form atoms.

sing to me of africville where african nova scotians build a community. In the implacable face of white supremacy. then sing me the africville blues that tell of city fathers attempting to e/race the african presence. in this white space white space called canada. so that they can build a park! not a golf course. but a park with a water fountain. what is the negative space called canada around which those early african canadians shaped themselves? into africville. into resistance. and into memory.

Listen to the sound of the river. I did. The Credit River. I sit, close my eyes and listen to the sound of the water flowing by. And within the sound of water I hear the sounds of the languages of the First Peoples. The liquid, mellifluous sounds of their languages. I listen and hear how the very sound of the space around us shapes us fundamentally—from the ground up so to speak, so that even the tongue must remain faithful to the language of the land.

space-time: The four-dimensional space whose points are events.

You cannot talk about space as it relates to Black people—to African people—without talking about movement or moving through space. And once you talk about moving through space as it relates to Africans, then you must confront the forces that prohibit or restrict that moving.

What happens when “you fucking people are all over the place!”? As in Caribana. Where hundreds of thousands of black bodies take over the streets of toronto. This collectivity of black bodies, that is truly all over the a specially allocated place, is always seen as a potential source of trouble. A threat. To the city fathers, and were it not for the 200+ million dollars Caribana brings into the city, it would have been stopped a long time ago.

Just as immigration has become the ritual purification ceremony for white Canada, so the yearly abasement of Caribana organizers before the city fathers, begging for money and permission to move, has become an important provincial aspect of that ritual. The white fathers control the space through which these black bodies will move and will to move: virtually every year the police flex their collective muscle and threaten to withhold permits and licences. The white fathers reaffirm their supremacy by portraying the african organizers as being unable to manage money. Proof being the debt the organizers have incurred. No mention is ever made of the monies the province annually pours into European-based arts such as the opera, the ballet, the symphony, the AGO and the ROM. None of which generates the financial returns which Caribana does. No mention is ever made of the many financial fiascos of governments, both provincial and federal, such as the Sky Dome and Pearson International Airport for which taxpayers have had to pay. No mention is made of the $200+ million that Caribana brings into the province's coffers. But within this space allowed to African people, to black bodies, there must be the ritual scourging of those who will not be allowed to be all over the place. And ritual obeisance to those who are, indeed, all over the place.

photon: A quantum of light

the moving of african peoples within a white supremacist society that from a space of longing. a longing to be free in that most basic of senses—freedom of movement.  which is exactly what africans do not and have not had ever since the european moved their bodies from africa to the new world. and then told them that they could not move. or run. they could only die and even that was forcibly prevented at times. today, despite michael jordan flying through the air to do his slam dunk, or oprah travelling in the stratosphere of the wealthy, or cosby, or michael jackson. the black body moving through space—the physical space—is still a threat. to be controlled. by those whose job it is to control the space. chief among whom are the police who harass african people, particularly african men, to a degree that the very concept of freedom of movement as it applies to black people is ludicrous.

wherever it takes place—notting hill, new york, montreal, miami—the route of this festival is, indeed, a route of memory, moving through the lower case historical space that is the african canadian community here in canada, as well as the upper case Historical space that is the trajectory from slavery to freedom. it is a route of memory that traverses and confronts the space that is canada which is essentially founded on white supremacist principles. the dynamics of this space functions so as to e/race the black presence—the african presence in this country, while enriching itself at the expense of those very black bodies. how else to explain the refusal of hotels in the city of toronto, some of the largest financial beneficiaries of the presence of thousands of black bodies in this space, to make any financial contribution to the staging this festival in the form of sponsorships? the phototype for this present e/racing of the african presence is the earlier e/racing of the first nations presence. the white space we call canada is, indeed, a palimpsest scored by multiple e/racings.

how, in the space we call canada, do we explain that at the last juno awards ceremonies, black musicians were given their awards at an earlier, non-televised ceremony? how, in the space we call canada, do we explain that the cbc, the supposed voice of the nation, does not have a single black television show? are we to conclude that in this so-called vast country of ours, there are no black screen writers, with stories to tell? or black actors needing work?

nucleus: The central part of an atom, consisting only of protons and neutrons, held together by the strong force.

The engine driving the popular music industry in the world today is African music.  Given that it has the largest number of African peoples in Canada today, Toronto naturally becomes a happening city for black music. This was the argument  Milestones Communications used to base its application to the CRTC for a licence for a Black music radio station. For the second time the CRTC refused to award a licence for a Black-owned radio station. The last remaining FM spot went to the CBC. The previous one to a country and western station—CISS FM.

The issue was never truly about black music. Had that been the case Milestones Communications would have got its licence. To licence a black-owned radio station which opens up the possibility for the coverage issues of importance to the African Canadian community and to the world Afrosporic community is to hand the African Canadian communities a resource with enormous and unpredictable potential. To withhold the license is to ensure that African Canadian people will not have the cultural space necessary for them to flourish as a people. In this space we call Canada. 

black hole: A region of space-time from which nothing, not even light, can escape, because gravity is so strong.

White society perceives the black body as dangerously transgressive. The black body is not only cypher, but metonym for danger, crime and subversion. To have thousands of these black bodies in the heartland of white Toronto is not exotica. For many, and particularly the police, it is nothing but a riot waiting to happen. Despite its aura of celebration, Caribana is symbolic of the discomfort the black presence creates in the falsely white space of Canada. In 1994, for instance, when the first Kiddies Carnival (for children) was scheduled to be held in the Oakwood/Eglinton area—a predominantly Black area—many of the area’s Italian residents, ably supported by their Members of Parliament, vehemently opposed the event. Community meetings held to discuss the issue degenerated into shouting matches, and the newspapers quoted Italians as telling African organizers to hold their parade elsewhere. Where else? If not Oakwood and Eglinton. 

neutron star: A cold star supported by the exclusion principle repulsion between neutrons.

I attend a funeral of an elder of the African Canadian community in Toronto. There isn't enough space for us in the funeral home. People spill out onto the sidewalk and again there is a sense of there never being enough room for us—not enough space. After such a long presence in this city, in this country, there are no Black-owned funeral homes, so that even in mourning our passing there remains the sense of being cramped and stifled.

Meantime the media allow us all the space we want, provided we show ourselves to be criminals and murderers, always looking for handouts, starving in africa, dying in africa, killing in africa. There is very little space for any other representation.

exclusion principle: Two identical spin-1/2 particles cannot have (within the limits set by the uncertainty principle) both the same position and the same velocity.

Where else should Africans and Black people free up? If not at Oakwood and Eglinton.  Where else if not in the heart—centre is perhaps more apt—of the city?  After 20 years of moving and dancing down (and sometimes up) University Avenue past the symbols and statues of a now defunct empire, past the US embassy—symbol of a very present empire,

past the law courts that play a disproportionately large role in African life, past the hospitals where many Africans work, often in the lowest jobs, Caribana has grown too large for the city. Or so they tell us. In 1994.  Its organizers move it to the Lakeshore.  Africans will have more space to free up, is the argument. Sitting on the grassy areas along the Lakeshore, watching the lake shimmer in the summer sunlight, it is easy to imagine that one is indeed in the Caribbean. The resemblance to the islands is uncanny—a sort of simulated re-representation of the Caribbean with its coastal communities and villages. The water, albeit fresh water, reminds you of the salt waters those first Africans crossed. Both separating and connecting us to Africa.

There is a shadow side: participants and spectators alike have literally become littoral if not litter/al-marginal.

naked singularity: A space-time singularity not surrounded by a black hole.

Within the confines of the city Caribana cannot/could not be ignored. The wide open spaces of the Lakeshore work to dilute and dissipate the energy generated by the gathering of so many black bodies. This dilution and diffusion is one of the unique effects of Canadian spaciality. It might be one of the ways the negative space that is Canada helps to shape its inhabitants. The beauty of the scenic surroundings works to undercut the tension generated by black bodies. The parade nature of the festival increases along with greater police control. Complete with signs commanding the music to “stop here.” A sort of public coitus interruptus. Barricades restrain people. It is more of a challenge to participate, to move from spectator to performer, as happened on University Avenue—an important aspect of carnival. Helicopters patrol the event in a way they were unable to on University: at the end of the day the Lakeshore has a feel of South Central, LA, with circling helicopters and spotlights. Not to mention the garbage cleaners after the last band literally and ritually cleansing the white space of the stain of blackness. And heaven forbid there should be a disturbance of any sort, then people—African people—are boxed in between the expressway and the lake. 

electric charge: A property of a particle by which it may repel (or attract) other particles that have a charge of similar (or opposite) sign.

the space that is canada—a space of refuge over which hangs the north star—to which those early africans fleeing. from the united states. leaving the past. moving into the imperfect present. believing it a racism-free space. the space we call canada: a respite—a hiatus—a pause—a caesura between the space of violence of the pilgrim fathers. and mothers all. and the space as yet unformed. the african—fleeing a space where black was not cypher or postmodern hieroglyph. but a thing. fleeing a space where even the so-called savage native could own an african slave. provided they—the native that is—were civilised enough. as in the five civilized tribes. this space that is. canada. a negative space.  around which we? i? the african. the black. shapes herself—ourselves. a space of unrelenting, unforgiving whiteness. a tabula rasa which was never blank.

nuclear fusion: The process in which two nuclei collide and coalesce to form a single, heavier nucleus.

Note: All definitions appear in Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time.

The Reproductions of Reproductions

Laura Elrick, Propagation (Kenning Editions, 2012), 103 pp. $14.95—Somewhat after the manner of Rusty Morrison’s the true keeps calm biding its time, Laura Elrick’s Propagation deploys repetition with a difference to mimic the shifting structures of trauma. However, Elrick, drawing on the rhetoric of art, poetics, media and psychiatry, expands the field. Trauma is here the internalization of normative development, the ways the different, the other, the disturbing—in short, violence—is absorbed and domesticated. Specifically, Elrick’s “affective physics of discourse” explores, at the level of the poetic line, word and syllable, the socio- and psycho-linguistics of the “turn” to affective criticism in recent years (I’m thinking in particular of Sianne Ngai’s Ugly Feelings). As the title of this book suggests, Elrick thinks of our varied but similar discourses as ideologically, if not causally, related, a network of rhetorics that reinforce and augment one another. From a “simple” grocery list that begins with “apples/spinach/ chick peas” and ends with “toilet paper/soap” (p. 37), Elrick reminds us of the culture-specific, rather everyday activities, that inculcate what we sometimes casually call attitudes. Moreover, to the extent terms acquire meaning from what both precedes and succeeds them (e.g., “chick peas” radiate gender-specific issues after lines like “the breast whiskers/yes the breast/whiskers yes,” page 15,  as well as before lines like “we didn’t/see her not/here we/2 hers/wait skirt/skirt/the paparazzi,” page 49), the very use and acceptance of  everyday language binds us to the ideologies we otherwise resist. And if gender is privileged in this reading vis-a-vis the multiple discourses comprising Propagation, it’s because I read this book as an emendation and augmentation of Elrick’s troubling (as content and as a project) video-poem STALK. For me, at least, there are several passages in Propagation that draw me back to her concern with political prisoners (“heading where/heading where/there is no more/playing/no more playing/mr. nice/playing mr. nice of it help me he said/he said/he said no,” p. 55). But as I noted above, this book is not concerned solely with one sphere of power or one mode of discourse, The social, political and cultural spheres Elrick investigates include everything from the infantilization of people of color and women (“and nadja and dora and nella/and dorothea and claude/and zora”) to the retooling of hyper-virility as commodity (“arrogant bastard 7.2%), as unimpeachable quality (“passing at/failing/or failing at passing/or”), both of which are “coded” within the phrase/brand themselves, itself (“bas tard/ tard ba sept/plus tard/point/deux”). Just as Harryette Mullen’s early books are a necessary amendment to Stein’s (which does not exhaust the achievement of either writer), Elrick’s work here may be read as opening a third front, a third sphere that nonetheless intersects with Mullen’s and Stein’s, the works of all three comprising a Venn diagram that “mirrors” the social, political and cultural orders we call “life.”

Black W/Holes: A History Of Brief Time, Part 1 of 2

Cover of FUSE Magazine, 1998, courtesy of fusemagazine.org
Cover of FUSE Magazine, 1998, courtesy of fusemagazine.org

What follows is Part 1 of 2 of M. NourbeSe Philip’s essay, “Black W/Holes: A History Of Brief Time,” which combines definitions from Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time with an urgent discussion about race relations in Canada and beyond in the late 1990s. This essay was originally published in Toronto’s FUSE Magazine in 1998. After sending Philip my commentary, “Physics of the Impossible,” which speculatively discusses her book-length poem Zong! (Wesleyan University Press, 2008) in relation to Albert Einstein’s theories of relativity, she sent me this essay. Since it only appears in the back issue of FUSE, I am presenting it here with her permission.

Part 2 of 2 can be found here.

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Black W/Holes: A History Of Brief Time (1998)
By M. NourbeSe Philip
Part 1 of 2

event: A point in space-time, specified by its time and place.          

Immersed in a recently bought newspaper, I exit a variety store and almost collide with a man walking west along St. Clair Ave West. I am immediately apologetic. His response is swift.  And contemptuous. “You fucking people are all over the place!” 

I suggest he do something to himself which is anatomically impossible I am angry—very angry.  I am also afraid. He is white. He is male. In a big city interactions like these can easily become fatal. I quickly duck into a another store. Some minutes later I emerge and am relieved to see his figure a block or so ahead of me. 

Quark: A (charged) elementary particle that feels the strong force.

“You fucking people are all over the place!” The white man’s words remain with me for a long time. They reverberate within—“all over the place...,” “all over the place...” If nothing else, it was clear that he felt I ought not to be on St. Clair Avenue West. The further implication of his statement was that my being on that street in Toronto was evidence that we—African people, I suppose—were “all over the place.” The corollary being that we ought not to be. I could easily dismiss that man’s statement, were it not for the fact that the notion of illegitimacy contained in his words is carefully nourished, cultivated and brought to splendid fruition in the white-supremacist immigration practices of all the western, so-called democracies. The main job of these countries—formerly the Group of Seven, now the Club of Eight—appears to be figuring out how best to club the rest of the world into submission, while keeping darker-skinned peoples physically corralled. Meantime capital, which is in fact our capital, wielded by multinationals, runs rampant and rough-shod all over the world. Indeed, all over the place!

big Bang: The singularity at the beginning of the universe 

for five hundred years the essence of being black is that you can be transported. anywhere. anytime. anyhow. for five hundred years a black skin is a passport. to a lifetime of slavery. a guarantee that the european can carry out terrorist acts against the african with impunity. for five hundred years the european moves the african “all over the place.” at his behest and whim. and then one bright summer's morning, he looks me in the eye and tells me: “you fucking people are all over the place.”  

ever since the holds of the slave ship, the european attempts to curtail the every moving of the african:

the moving in time
the moving in space
the moving into their own spirituality

the european forbids the african language; forbids her her spirituality; forbids her her gods; forbids her her singing and drumming; forbids her the natural impulse to cling to mother, father, child, sister and brother—forbids her family. leaves her no space. but that of the body. and the mind. which in any event they deny. cut off from their own histories and History, the african moves into a history that both deracinates and imprisons her. in the  primitive. in the ever-living present absent a past or a future.

uncertainty principle: One can never be exactly sure of both the position and the velocity of a particle; the more accurately one knows the one, the less accurately one can know the other.

I live in a starter home. On a starter street. For two decades I have lived in a starter home. The street remains a starter street for many who buy their first home there—a starter home—then move on. There are a few like me and my family, however, who defy the very meaning  of start which intends always to lead to somewhere else. We remain. Stay put. In a starter home. Away from home. Defying the wanderer, the lost, the unbelonging in Black. The spore at the root of Africa. 

today—the black skin is not so much a passport as an active signifier to those manning borders of the brave new world order of everything that must not be allowed in. crime, drugs, AIDS, sex, ebola,...  into these self same western democracies whose spawn—the metastasizing multinational—is all over the place.

Robina, Winona, Alberta. Three women's names. And the names of three streets in the neighbourhood in which  I live. The same one with the starter home. The story is that at one time—in the past—is there such a thing?—a Black man owned the land on which these streets are now located. That man had three daughters whose names were Robina, Winona and Alberta. I have never verified this story, maybe fearing its inaccuracy. Somehow I feel more connected to this area, knowing? believing? that a long time ago Robina (I had an aunt called Rubina), Winona and Alberta, three Black women, grew up here. In this neighbourhood. And that their father once owned this land.

Which in turn begs the question. How did he own it? How do you, as a blackman—an African man, or woman ‘own’ land in a space e/raced of its native peoples, bounded “from sea to shining sea” by the ligaments of white supremacy? A space. Our home and native land—our stolen, native land. A space. Still being warred over by the descendants of two European powers. How do you own land, a house, even a starter home in a space and place where a minor encounter with an/other gives rise to the challenge of your legitimacy in this space. A space of massive interruptions. And disruptions. Mostly fatal for the First Nations people. That is the new world. That is the space we call canada.

magnetic field: The field responsible for magnetic forces, now incorporated, along with the electric field, into the electromagnetic field.

Goethe was of the view that the negative space around which leaves develop influenced the shape of a plant as much as their genes. Something in the surrounding emptiness, he believed, gave shape to the leaf. 

What is the space—the negative space—that is Canada, around which I grow? Around which African people—Black people—grow. How does that negative space shape us?  And do we, in turn, shape that space—moulding it to fit our specificities?

in this space we call canada, blackness serves as a cypher. a tool. the means by which the larger, white space shapes and ritually purifies itself. blackness becomes the most effective way in which the essence of canadianness—is there such a thing?—is articulated and the purity of canadian space is ensured. so that the refrain—“you fucking people are all over the place” is modified—parsed into “you people will not be allowed to be all over this place called canada. except and in so far as we allow you to be.”

spin: An internal property of elementary particles, related to, but not identical to, the everyday concept of spin.

Time and again in the media, the involvement of African men and women in crime becomes the excuse to question the effectiveness of the immigration act. As if white men and women do not commit crimes. As if the very space that is canada is not founded on profound and unforgivable crimes against First Nations people. Against humanity.

“Why are we letting these kinds of people into our country?” the editorials question. Deportation becomes the most favoured tool to deal with that speciality, “black crime.” Despite the fact that many, if not most, of these people convicted of crimes may have spent their most formative years here. in this space called canada.

At least once a year white Canadians ritually define and purify themselves and their space by going through this public process—ably assisted by their media handmaidens—of ensuring that indeed “you fucking people are not all over the place.

Every two or three years these rituals culminate in the high mass of a commission of inquiry into the state of immigration. The recommendations of these commissions invariably narrow the manoeuvrable space allowed Africans and other peoples of colour. Head taxes, extended waiting periods for refugees, genetic testing of family members—the list of punishments for those who have sinned by desiring to enter the space called canada is long and exquisitely tortuous. 

1973 was just such a year: Canadians would examine how immigration practices were affecting the country. In a country built primarily on white immigration, it is significant that in the 1974 Green Paper on Immigration, all the worst case scenarios used examples of African peoples: for instance, how would parents feels about the “fate of their offspring if their children were to marry a black person.” All material showing the potential effect of demographic changes resulting from immigration used examples of domestic migrations of Black Americans within the United States—a country convulsing in response to challenges to its governing ideology of white supremacy. The black body becomes the measurement—the point at which absolute difference is established. 

acceleration: The rate at which the speed of an object is changing.

an emptiness—an absence
shapes me shaping it
as the space around
the leaf serrates
the oak
fringes the willow
needles the larch

you may be born here—your mother’s mother and father’s father—you will still get asked where you’re from. if your skin is black. you answer here. which is where? but if the minister of immigration gets her way—even being born here, in the space called canada, will be no guarantee that you can claim Canadian citizenship. 

the white that is snow
shapes itself around the silence
of cree and ojibwa—a hardness
in the face of something new
strange

primordial black hole: A black hole created in the very early universe.

“all over the place!” is there anywhere in this world—this brave and newly ordered world—to which a white skin does not become an automatic passport? all over the place, indeed! from the fifteenth century on, columbus, pizarro, hawkins, drake and others of that ilk—robber barons all supported by their robber—baron monarchs—run around the world terrorising africans and other peoples of colour. this is how they repay the hospitality of their hosts wherever they land. their most effective weapon is the company. there is a plethora of companies: the dutch east india company, the company of royal adventurers, the french east india company, the royal african company and on and on.  and they deal in bodies. black bodies. what they call pieces of black ivory. today the ceo sons of these same robber barons and buccaneers sit atop multinational corporations whose work has not changed in five hundred years. they still deal in bodies. yours and mine. “you fucking people are all over the place!” talk about role reversal and projection.

Take the Ossington bus north—say at Dundas. Ride north on it to Eglinton. Observe how the bus goes through a chromatic shift from light to dark as you enter the space of Blackness. That ‘exotic’ space of Blackness as rendered by Atom Egoyam. Up on Eglinton. Heartland of exotica. Exotic from whose perspective? (No review or critique of this film challenges the use of Blackness as nothing more than a signifier. For the exotic.) Then take a walk down Bay. Not so much heartland as engine of the capitalist machine. Observe how monochromatic that space is. Its beat that of a metronome.

rhythm is simply space divided by time. “up on eglinton” at oakwood is rhythmed in the same time as port of spain, trinidad; as accra, ghana; as scarborough, tobago; as kingston, jamaica; as harlem, new york.

event horizon: The boundary of a black hole

Canada is the clichéd land of wilderness. Like all clichés it is also founded on truth—the space that is canada contains 20% of the world’s wilderness. And yet in such vastness Africans and other peoples of colour are to be found by and large only in urban areas. Forty minutes outside of Toronto African peoples are invisible. Not present. Despite some four hundred years on this continent—in this land called canada. Cottage country remains a white enterprise in every sense of that word. Complete with power boats, jet skis and luxury cottages. It is, indeed, a strange way to be “all over the place” when African and other children of colour are noticeably absent from “wilderness” camps outside of the urban areas.

What is it about this experience of “wilderness”—this very Canadian experience—which Africans and other peoples of colour who have come here as immigrants do not participate in. Do our African brothers and sisters who have been here far longer than we fresh water Canadians have, engage in a different relationship with this twenty percent wilderness?

There appears to be some sort of psychic border which prohibits or limits our entry, as “Others,” into this particularly Canadian aspect of life. Considering that most immigrants are at most one generation away from the land, their lack of engagement with it in Canada is significant. For many peoples from Africa and Asia, the land remains integrally linked to their life: not only is it the source of food, but also of healing and spirituality. With European settlement in Canada, however, the “wilderness” has developed a language which we cannot penetrate, unless we enter the world of whiteness—possess a cottage and boat. With the e/racing of the First Nations presence and their removal to reservations, their wisdoms, their languages, their manner of relating to the land have all been unavailable to us. The “wilderness” has indeed been racialized.

Safety lies in numbers. This is why we African peoples coalesce in cities. We know we will find others like ourselves there, we will find foods we’re used to. We can hear our languages spoken. There is an immediate sense of connectedness which cannot be underestimated. It recreates the illusion of home and belonging. 

imaginary time: Time measure using imaginary numbers.

I am a child, sitting in a darkened movie theatre. This is our regular Saturday treat. A matinee.  The cowboys and white settlers are on the lookout for Indians. The beautiful scenic river becomes ominous: Indian savages may be hiding in the bushes just waiting to scalp white men, women and children. Several years later I paddle a canoe along a quiet lake in north Ontario, round a bend and for a split second am afraid, expecting a canoe of tomahawk—brandishing Indians. Maybe Tarzan will come and rescue me.     

Long before I am aware of it the “wilderness” is racialized. In movies, books—fiction and non-fiction, and comic books. I am not from the American South, but as an African person the American South is in my psyche. Somewhere. 

Walking up a back road in Southwestern Ontario the sound of an engine behind me tenses my body; my thoughts—and fears—turn to rape, lynching and racist rednecks. Nor can I forget, while vacationing in Minden, Ontario, deep in the Haliburton Highlands, that white supremacists held a rally in that very town not that long before.   

When you put an African person in the woods, in the “wilderness”, one of the first images that comes to mind is that of being hunted. By dogs. By white men with shotguns.

The immediate and individual power of the redneck cannot be underestimated—one only has to think of the recent lynching in Texas of an African American by three white men who tied his body to a truck and dragged him to his death. As the most powerful purveyor of popular culture, however, the movies have played a significant role in representing the “wilderness” and rural areas as the heartland of the redneck. They also let the urban redneck off the hook. One of the strongest screen images of the ur-racist is that of poor, white trash riding shotgun in an old beat—up pickup truck. Seldom do we ever see those three—pieced, pinstriped business men and women (members of the Club of Eight) riding shotgun, hunting Black people. But they are, indeed, the ones with the resources and commitment to the policies and practices which have carefully nurtured and sustained the belief system of white supremacy. 

Meantime Africans are literally scared off the land, which the European purchases and enjoys relatively free of any contact with African people.

It is winter. I am standing on a frozen lake some two hours north of Toronto. There is a still whiteness all around me. In this moment I recognize something about the way in which First Nations people relate to the land. As a living, breathing force which one needs to interact with.  Not to conquer, but to be in relationship with. Several hours later I hear the First Nations scholar, Georges Sioui, speaking eloquently about the need for the newcomer—the european—to learn the concept of Americity. Americity, he argues, encapsulates an approach to the land which all the first peoples of the Americas share.

Note: All definitions appear in Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time.