A grave in exchange for the commons

Fred Moten and the resistance of the object

Photo courtesy Adam Pendleton.

I am standing in front of contemporary artist Adam Pendleton’s installation at MoMA PS1’s Greater New York show, in the heart of cultural (if not actual) capital, as it were. The work before and around me, The Abolition of Alienated Labor, takes its title from a 1963 work by the French Situationist Guy Debord, in which Debord painted the words “The Abolition of Alienated Labor” over an industrial painting by fellow Situationist Giuseppe Pinot-Gallizio. Directly in front of me is a large (five- by seven-foot?), boxy, black-framed object in which I can see the image of a man. The man is black and wears a headdress of some sort, with a feather protruding from it sticking straight up.

The image has an archival quality, as many of the images Pendleton uses in his Systems of Display series do. Pendleton seems to be attempting to evoke a feeling for history in his viewer, without necessarily telling you what any particular image is, or where it originates. The image of the man with the headdress is actually a silkscreen that has been printed upon a mirror set inside the boxlike frame. One can look at the image of the man with the headdress or at the mirror, but can not grasp both simultaneously. This sensation — the sensation of trying to hold two discrete images in one’s cognized perception at the same time — evokes Ludwig Wittgenstein’s famous example of “aspect blindness,” the drawing of a “duck/rabbit.”

It also evokes a concept from Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s posthumous book The Visible and the Invisible, which is that of chiasmus. [1] In chiasmus one has not only a sensation of an object, but a cognition of sensing the object and a consciousness of having consciousness of this sensation. Chiasmus is a radical concept because it conflates being in and being for, both subject and object. In chiasmus one sees and is touched by the fact that one sees. Through chiasmus, we overcome our alienation as beings of sensation and beings of thought. In Pendleton’s System of Display series one may also feel the senses becoming theoreticians, to recall a well-known passage from Marx. To what extent, I wonder, does the situation of the viewer, faced with Pendleton’s boxes, evoke organs of perception and cognition in which sense and being, seeing and knowing, are one and the same activity, coextensive with the production of the viewer’s sociality and humanity?

There is another feature of the image before me. I see letters printed in Arial font, the generic font of modernism. These letters don’t form words, but are anagrammatic — without beginning or end. I think they are meant to produce a “vocabulary” or lexicon in addition to the images, so that one is seeing one’s self in a mirror, seeing an image from history (or with a feeling of history), and reading (or tempted to produce lexical meaning) in tandem (or, at times, simultaneously). As the name System of Display suggests, we are in the midst of a kind of archival or museum machine. What would it mean for me (the viewing-sensing subject) to actively produce history (or myself in relation to historical indices), confronted by these objects? What would it mean to grasp in my consciousness an (iconic) image of the past and the present at once? What future might appear out of this act of perception?

1. Commons sense and the resistance of the object

The transcendence of private property is therefore the complete emancipation of all human senses and qualities, but it is this emancipation precisely because these senses and attributes have become, subjectively and objectively, human. The eye has become a human eye, just as itsobject has become a social, human object — an object made by man for man. The senses have therefore become directly in their practicetheoreticians. They relate themselves to the thing for the sake of the thing, but the thing itself is an objective human relation to itself and to man, and vice versa. Need or enjoyment have consequently lost their egotistical nature, and nature has lost its mere utility by use becominghuman use.

— Karl Marx, “Private Property and Communism” [2

In his “Black Dada Manifesto,” Pendleton writes that his works are “a way to talk about the future, while talking about the past. That is to say they are our present moment.” [3]  They are also, I believe, a way of talking about a future commons, a commons that may appear through the senses becoming theoreticians and vice versa.

where the theoreticians will become senses in their practice

where the theoreticians will not be seeing, hearing
where the theoreticians will sear, the theoretician is a seer
where the theoreticians will be seen and heard in their practice

where the theoreticians will touch themselves
where the theoreticians will become sensual in their practice

where the reverse will always be in excess
where the sequence is for nono and maxine
where reading and recite this scene to John Gwin, my daddy

where they go plot paradise, blue bolivar, boll and marvel
where mask and boll and cut and fry and groove

where the senses will become theoreticians in their practice

— Fred Moten, “where the blues began,” in Hughson’s Tavern [4]

There is yet another aspect of Pendleton’s installation I have failed to mention. An audio recording plays on speakers positioned above the installation space. The audio recording is of a collaboration between Abbey Lincoln and Max Roach, “Triptych,” in which one initially hears Lincoln humming, her voice faintly audible, and eventually this low humming turning to screams, cries, moans, and screeches. As Moten notes, “Triptych” appears on the 1963 album We Insist!, and is one of the first compositions made by a black avant-garde ensemble in response to the Civil Rights movement. Uncannily, the recording looks forward to the suffering of the Civil Rights era while also looking back upon a long history of black “moaning.” A tradition of blues in which talking voice and talking instruments become interchangeable, where communicability and expression are thus uniquely coextensive. A tradition in which Marx’s “organs of [man’s] individual being,” [5] “seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling, thinking, observing, experiencing, wanting, acting, loving,” [6] infuse one another, making common cause against the alienation of their common property.

One of the great ironies of the European notion of the commons is the extent to which it cannot account for the African American slave, whose very subjectivity was defined in terms of being a commodity. As poet and theorist Fred Moten points out, one of the tasks of the radical black aesthetic tradition has been to account for the subjection of the slave in conjunction with the history of primitive accumulation. Moten draws out the irony of a collective desire for a commons when he cites the well-known passage from Capital in which Marx identifies the commodity as that which is silent, passive, and worldless: “If commodities could speak they would say this: our use-value may interest men, but it does not belong to us as objects.” [7]  Against Marx’s formulation, Moten insists that it is through the blues that the slave does talk (back), if only through the ambivalence of the slave’s subjective origins and erstwhile commodity status: “this space being the impossible material substance of the commodity’s impossible speech.” [8] The body, radically objectified through slavery, becomes subject in equally radical fashion through the modes of performance born through and after the condition of slavery.

What can the black radical aesthetic issuing from the tradition of slavery teach us about the activity of commoning? How does a commons emerge through the freedom drive of slave subjectivity, a subjectivity divided by status as an object of private property (commodity) and the fact of being an human-animal species?

In its engagement with blues forms (among which we may count jazz, bebop, hiphop, and other African American musics), Moten’s In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition suggests how the collective labor of the ensemble and the improvisatory nature of blues performance can both lead to models of collective organization and production that oppose expropriation, the reproduction of private property, enclosure, and other forms of subjection. The ensembles of Duke Ellington and Cecil Taylor represent this alternative for Moten, inasmuch as they evoke a parallel discourse of commons, one in which the would-be author-composer becomes a producer among other producers, and property is redistributed, constituted through music. In the improvisational techniques of Taylor, likewise, scoring becomes unforeclosed — it resists being authored — by the fact that it is written and performed, live and recorded. In Taylor’s improv, and Moten’s writing with Taylor’s music in a chapter of his book, Moten locates a space anterior to property relations, a space resistant to capture by the property relations presupposed by alienated cultural production.

Yet there is another economic principle at work in Moten’s book that is of equal if not greater importance, and this principle has to do with what he refers to as the “resistance of the object.” By “talking back,” but also through antagonism, the object produces itself as a subject: slave subjectivity flickers with both human-animal and commodity status. In Moten’s book, the resistance of the object is related through certain ways of reading (and seeing, and hearing) it without reducing its materiality, or reducing this materiality through the object’s representation. This materiality is related phonically through Lincoln’s composition with Roach by way of protest: Lincoln’s voice as a site of protest, objection, nonassimilability, antiappropriation. To scream, in Lincoln’s case, is to explore the limits of her voice, thus the principal site where the subject appears and is subjected. But it is also to evoke the primal origins of why she sings: the cries and moans and screams of slaves under the whip and of erstwhile slaves under segregation. Moten writes:

Not the reduction of but the reduction to phonic materiality where re-en-gendering prefaces and works itself. No originary configuration of attributes but an ongoing shiftiness, a living labor of engendering to be organized in relation to politico-aesthetics. It’s always going on and has been. Abbey Lincoln starts in classic (anti-/ante-[slave]) narrative fashion. [9]

The majority of Moten’s examples are taken from black music, yet his notion of phonic irreducibility also has to do with the visual assaults enacted by black visual artists. Here he locates a quality of black visual performance that causes the viewer’s gaze to avert or glance away. Moten examines the visual combativeness of the black aesthetic object through the poignant late 1960s performance of Adrian Piper, in which she boarded municipal buses with a pocketbook full of ketchup and proceeded to wade for her bus fare in the pocketbook. In the same performance, Piper sat on the bus and had herself photographed with a towel stuffed in her mouth. In her Catalysis performances, Piper enters Max’s Kansas City in New York wearing a blindfold. This Kantian exercise, in which Piper intends to experience a “transcendental ego” — one of the principal desiderata of the artist’s early photographic and performance works — backfires, as she is forced to deal with an audience who takes her performance to be antisocial and combative. She is thus not able to shed her subjection, her interpellation. In her efforts to become a transcendental subject, Piper is consistently reminded that she is black (albeit light-skinned) and that to be a black woman artist means that one will encounter racism and racial identification in any attempt to deal with the “pure” aesthetic problems confronted by Piper’s white male peers in the early conceptual art movement.

Through his extensive discussion of Piper, Moten is able to extend his notion of the “resistance of the object” from a sonic-musical context to one involving an equally material, however visual, aesthetic content. Moten defines the “freedom drive” as one that resists the commodity form and the reduction of materiality (the materiality of the body, of one’s immanence) to a proprietary logic of value. That is how I am reading Moten’s very dense theoretical contribution, anyways: as an elaborate treatise on how the body of the black performer/person/subject/singularity becomes the principal site of a commons that is always imminent, but rarely recognized. It is the commons of the commodity form itself, the commodity form if it could speak, if Marx could have subjunctively anticipated its talking back. To produce the commons in Moten’s work involves what he calls a “poetics of political form,” in which the resistance of the object (that is, the body of the erstwhile slave seeking its freedom in spirit, what cannot be possessed and which yet possesses that body in privileged moments of expression) models a form of organization, responsibility, discourse, and political and social economy.

Moten’s poetry, written out of and besides and after and before his theoretical contributions, involves a political economy of noise: illegibility, noncollaboration, obscurity, phonic nominalism. In phonetic noise, or what Bruce Andrews refers to as a composition through “informalism,” one encounters a substance nonassimilable, not reducible to a representation or theme, nor to a form of property or proprietary logic of valuation. [10]  And it is this nonpropertied object that constitutes a commons insofar as it can be heard and made visible (seen) and sharable in its being heard — through its phonic materiality. This commons is formed around a set of differences, what Moten in In the Break calls the “cut” and the “break.”

Enacted in the poems — in the prosody itself, as well as the grammar — is a poetics that embodies cut, break, assemblage, montage: qualities we find reflected/refracted in an ostensibly white avant-garde tradition. However, given the particular historical force of Moten’s clear evocation, his holding forth, we can locate this poetics in traditionally black aesthetic forms, the cultural production of a particular multitude. Poetry becomes the site where the resistance of the object is performed; poetry is also an extension of this object. It is, in other words, prosthetic. Poetry is the rupture, it is the break, recircuiting and inscribing a genealogy of sound forms. The libidinal sites of this genealogy are shored up by sonic materialism and the processural documenting of dialect. The fact that all post-blues poetics is a document, as Lorenzo Thomas’s scholarship insists. [11]

An internal differentiating principle distinguishes Moten’s commons of ensemble and noise from traditional, European images of commons — shared land use, for instance, or public spaces designated for common use and enjoyment. How does one own spirit? How does one possess sound and breath and song as an emanation of the commons that resides within spirit — a pneumatic principle, a sexual and affective one describing the structure of feeling of the erstwhile enslaved?

The word commons appears throughout Hughson’s Tavern, written after the 1714 revolt in colonial New York City in which free and indentured whites and black slaves wagered their freedom together and died trying. The word commons also appears curiously in a poem called “five points, ten points,” which has haunted my attention since I first read Hughson’s Tavern. The poem begins, “whiteness ain’t the same as them / a grave in exchange for the commons. // blackness / is a range of deviations from the commons […] you gave up the commons for a grave but / black migrates for what it is.” [12]  Moten reminds us that there is not one conception of commons, but that the structure of feeling necessitated by the experience of slavery has also necessitated a different conception of commons, one based as much on what isn’t shared as on what is, on obscurity and combativeness as much as on collaboration and conatus (combativeness as a form of conatus?).

Evoking work by Derrida and others, Moten’s commons, his black commons or commons of black subjectivity, is founded on a “gift of death,” the radical negativity of death as a munis given to the community by the body of each social member, upon which that community is founded and periodically revivified. Throughout the book looms the specter of 1714 New York, where slaves and nonslaves, whites, blacks, and people of color did indeed give up their lives for a “paradise” not so much yet-to-come, but immanent to the conditions of possibility born through a particular social formation that should undertake insurrection.

The many poems of Hughson’s Tavern and Moten’s subsequent collection, B Jenkins, seem to pivot around this central utopian placeholder. Through the carnivalesque image of Hughson’s Tavern specifically, Moten suggests a notion of commons that is irreducible to ethnic identity, however it may be founded on an experience of resilience, oppositionality, and resistance. What is the universal subject of such a commons but the object talking back, even when, as in Moten’s poem “Rock the party, fuck the smackdown,” their throats are figurally and literally cut?

thing object. matter ain’t the same
as one another. things don’t represent
they must be broke. they cannot pay attention
to objects like objects so they stay mad
all the goddamn time, broken glasses
everywhere. but I sound better since you
cut my throat, the checkerboard is also a
chess board. It’s also a cutting board and a

sound board. it’s also a winding sheet and a
sound booth. [13]


2. “The right to love refusal”

As Moten says in his 2010 collection of poems, B Jenkins, “The right to love refusal is black music.” [14]  This has everything to do with the economy of commons I have been trying to discuss here.

Reading B Jenkins, one is immediately struck by the peculiar titling Moten uses. I like to think of his titles as shoutouts, in the tradition of hip hop performance and blues and jazz performance before that. Before reading any particular “poem,” one encounters a proper name, and, with few exceptions, one also encounters a proper name at the close of the poem. This pattern highlights the fact of address — where a dedication or epigraph might have done the trick — but also foregrounds the network of proper names with whom Moten’s work is in relation, making legible the condition of sociality out of which the work is produced. These names come from visual art history, African American history, black performance traditions, critical theory, cultural studies. Among others, they include iconic musicians James Brown, Sun Ra, and Billie Holiday; poets June Jordan, Renee Gladman, and Nathaniel Mackey; visual artists Lygia Clark, Adrian Piper, and Jean-Michel Basquiat; as well as critical theorists Walter Benjamin, Kathleen Stewart, and Michael Fried. The names also indicate the individuals Moten counts as his contemporaries, lovers, and friends, including his mother, B Jenkins, after whom the book is named.

Toward the end of B Jenkins, Moten alludes to this community — or commons — as an open secret. “Poetry investigates new ways for people to get together and do stuff in the open, in secret”: a secret which, purloined-letter-style, becomes that much more hermetic, withdrawn, obscure, or simply particular by being placed in the open, put in public. [15]  If a subject of (black) resistance, which is to say blackness (Moten equates a black subjectivity with resistance throughout his theoretical and poetic work), should form a commons, it will do so only through its radical singularity. Recalling Derrida’s claim that “what is happily and tragically universal is absolute singularity,” Moten suggests that if a universal subject should emerge at any point historically, it shall emerge through the radically particular. [16]  The many names of B Jenkins — both the book’s title and the titles given to the “body” of the poems themselves — mark a nonexclusive, however radically particular, community of beings who through their distributed proper names aneconomically mark an ongoing commons. That commons is founded not on communication per se, but rather on obscurity: on the right, if you will, to be obscure. So Moten quotes Saidiya Hartman: “the right to obscurity must be respected.” [17]

One’s objectivity in this case — the resistance of this objectivity — grounds a commons because it is resistant to forms of political and social activity that would seek to codify and thus deradicalize a poetics of political form. Moten’s phrase inverts the title of a groundbreaking anthology of poet’s essays edited by Charles Bernstein, The Politics of Poetic Form. This inversion seems crucial in a period in which the political and social efficacy of Language writing has been exhaustively studied and archived, if not circumscribed through its institutionalization. What, I wonder, would it mean to preserve the commons as an event of resistance within a discourse about sociopolitics?

Whereas Hughson’s Tavern imagines the commons after an early colonial American insurrection among poor whites and free and enslaved blacks, and whereas through the insurrectional event on which Hughson’s Tavern is based whites and blacks could be figured through a shared resistant subject position, in B Jenkins black subjectivity is sited as eventual through any number of openly secret locations. The club, for instance: a favorite utopia of the rap song. Or the rent party: an old-school utopia. Can we think about Moten’s book in particular — as well as the (poetry) book in general — as a means to posit counterpublics, forms of public in which what Moten calls an “ante-politics” — a politics of anteriority or exteriority in which political motivations and formation are not subsumed by their representation — should emerge eventually? Through a force of events, of immanent circumstances, in which a general intellect holds sway, the seizure of creative forces immanent to bodies being together, living, laboring, loving?

I have been referring here mainly to the form of B Jenkins, and the ways Moten conceives of proper names allegorically. But the subtlety of Moten’s concept is most embodied through the expressive aspects of his poetry, which embrace an opacity by which a new distribution of the senses (or of common sense) can become recognizable. The risk of this approach, as Moten discusses in the interview with Charles Henry Rowell that concludes B Jenkins, is that the open secret — the thing binding an ostensible community of beings — can be shared only in secret, which is to say, through a sense of withdrawal. Perhaps then it is the withdrawal of meaning/communication that forms this commons, the materiality of that noise called black music being what the would-be commoner gets around.

Through tremendous lyrical acrobatics, Moten’s B Jenkins brings his readers to a primal place where language performance wagers our freedom. And this freedom — different than that afforded by liberal democracy or by the legislations of our currently administered world — is exceptional. In this work I hear the haunting echo of Abbey Lincoln, with whom I began this essay:

When Bird was around he knew he wasn’t playing jazz. He was playing his spirit. And I think that’s the problem for a lot of musicians on the scene right now. They think that they’re playing jazz. But there’s no such thing really / I’m possessed of my own spirit / This is the music of the African muse / I just want to be of use to my ancestors. It’s holy work and it’s dangerous not to know that ’cause you could die like an animal down here. [18]

This freedom — the “freedom drive” that embodies Moten’s work — has to do with language use. How language edges the fact that life has happened, is happening. I am alluding here finally to another quotation that serves as a refrain throughout B Jenkins, one Moten cites from Michel Foucault: “life constantly escapes, it steals away.” Poetry as a form of life, or a life-force, coextensive with our lived sociality, a sociality in which official and unofficial politics is practiced, or in which one elects not to legislate but to remain abandoned or in exodus: “the utopian jew of voice.” [19]  Lyrical excess, expressive “black noise,” evading its would-be captors. In Moten’s work, we are witness to a life of contest, participation, and interrogation: “when was the assertion of blackness anything other than interrogation?” [20]  It is here, in his poems, where we realize what a poem can do, its use value. That the open secrets of our lives become tangible, if not communicable. That this open secret gives us worlds to model a future governance. Shelley’s “unacknowledged legislators of the world,” but also Oppen’s “legislators of an unacknowledged world.” Moten’s “Somewhere between being one of the elected, the unacknowledged legislator operates on the edge of things, resisting that desire for inclusion that eviscerates politics-as-the-politics of escape.” [21]



1.  Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible, ed. Claude Lefort, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Chicago: Northwestern University Press, 1968).

2.  Karl Marx, “Private Property and Communism,” in Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1884, ed. Dirk Struik, trans. Martin Milligan (New York: International Publishers, 1969), 139.

3.  Quoted in Kevin McGarry, “Greater New Yorkers: Adam Pendleton,” New York Times Style Magazine, May 27, 2010. Also see Adam Pendleton, “Black Dada Manifesto,” in Manifesto Marathon, ed. Julia Peyton-Jones and Hans Ulrich Obrist (Serpentine Gallery, 2009).

4.  Fred Moten, Hughson’s Tavern (Providence: Leon Works, 2008), 77.

5.  Marx, “Private Property and Communism,” 139.

6.  Ibid., 138–139.

7.  Moten quotes Marx in In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), 8–9.

8.  Ibid., 9.

9.  Ibid., 24; see also 22–24.

10.  See Bruce Andrews, “Praxis: A Political Economy of Noise and Informalism,” in Close Listening: Poetry and the Performed Word, ed. Charles Bernstein (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 73–85.

11.  Lorenzo Thomas, Don’t Deny My Name: Words and Music and the Black Intellectual Tradition (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2008). One of the many attractive arguments recurrent throughout Thomas’s collection is his argument that all blues music/lyric forms a document of African American experience, inasmuch as the music/literature/text is a vessel for African American cultural practices, history, and experience otherwise unrecorded by “official” historiography.

12.  Moten, Hughson’s Tavern, 28.

13.  Ibid., 23.

14.  Moten, B Jenkins (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), 48.

15.  Ibid., 84.

16.  Ibid., 106.

17.  Ibid., 105.

18.  Moten, In the Break, 23.

19.  Moten, B Jenkins, 66.

20.  Ibid., 76.

21.  Ibid., 86.