Feel beauty supply, post 10

Hurston on loafing and loitering

Whenever I think I might be being too thin in my thinking about aesthetic practice, someone says something in agreement with my thoughts, though more bookishly and then I see that I’m right, even in my simplicity. Like when I was procrastinating this weekend on writing on my promised account of Hurston’s Mules and Men I went on twitter where Anne Boyer tweeted this quote from Pierre Macherey: “To deprive the bourgeoisie not of its art but of its concept of art, this is the precondition of a revolutionary argument.” I like this sentence because of the “its” and the “its concept of.” By modifying art these words signal that there are other kinds of art practices. In this way Macherey’s sentence believes that the history of aesthetics I’ve been discussing here this summer is not aesthetics or aesthetic practice “as such.” To play off of Fred Moten, I would say that what we see in western aesthetics is white sociality, a set of legislation for white sociality, if we understand white sociality as a means of functioning within a modernity defined by colonial and imperial practices.

When Juliana Spahr, Jasper Bernes, and Joshua Clover wrote here at Commentary some time ago, they presented the history of poetry so:

The coronation of kings, the praise of nations, the vindication of the ways of god (or the gods) to man, the counting and administration of the wealth of the rulers. These were the original tasks of the poem. The poet emerges alongside the warrior class, the priestly class. The poem emerges as one expenditure of the newfound surpluses of the grain-cultivating civilizations of the Nile and the Tigris and Euphrates. Without peasants, no poets. Poets really are the unacknowledged legislators of the world because, from the start, the poem was a tool for the administration of the affairs of state: written business records and legal codes enabled by the measurement and patterning of speech provided by the poetic technique.

What’s interesting and I think wrong in this account is the assumption that the “poem” only exists once the societal role of “poet” exists. The history of poetry above starts when poems are given “tasks” that are in the service of power, and that can only occur once Human Resources is placing an ad for “poet.” But the poem is not a form of money. The poet is a form of money, as my paycheck from the university tells me every month. But what about the poem that tasks itself with the refusal of work? What about the poem that loafs and loiters and emerges from the mouth of someone for whom it is criminal to loaf and loiter? In a world that continually limits the definition of the human being to economic functions, the poem serves as a reminder of a being that we have within us that is otherwise.  Or as Fred Moten puts it, “Poetically man dwells, amped, right next to the buried market, at the club underneath the quay, changing the repeat, thrown like a new thing, planning to refuse until the next jam, at a time to be determined and fled.” And this is what we see in Hurston’s  Mules and Men.  

Hurston’s choice to include the frame narrative to display her act of “collecting” the folklore allows the reader to see the social function of the poetic exchanges among the people of Eatonville. This frame is necessary for understanding the word play, regardless of narrative content, as an act resistance. Eatonville, FL, an African-American town is a mill town. All the black men work for the white mill bosses. The day Hurston follows the men to the mill, she witnesses the following interaction:

The big whistle at the saw-mill boomed and shrilled and pretty soon the log-train came racking along. No flats for logs behind the little engine. The foreman dropped off the tender as the train stopped.

“No loggin’ today, boys. Got to send the train to the Everglades to fetch up the track gang and their tools.”

“Lawd, Lawd, we got a day off,” Joe Willard said, trying to make it sound like he was all put out about it. “Let’s go back, boys. Sorry you won’t git to de swamp, Zora.”

And he walked on off, chewing his tobacco and spitting his juice.

The men began to shoulder jumper-jackets and grab hold of buckets.

Allen asked: “Ain’t dat a mean man? No work in the swamp and still he won’t let us knock off.”

“He’s mean all right, but Ah done seen meaner men than him,” said Handy Pitts.


“Oh, up in Middle Georgy. They had a straw boss and he was so mean dat when the boiler burst and blowed some of the men up in the air, he docked ‘em for de time they was off de job.”

Tush Hawg up and said: “Over on de East Coast Ah used to have a road boss and he was so mean and times was so hard till he laid off de hands of his watch.”

Wiley said: “He’s almost as bad a Joe Brown. Ah used to work in his mine and he was so mean till he wouldn’t give God an honest prayer without snatching back ‘Amen.’”

Ulmer says: “Joe Wiley, youse as big a liar as you is a man! Whoo-wee. Boy, you molds ‘em. But lemme tell y’all a sho nuff tale ‘bout Ole Massa.”

“Go ‘head and tell it, Cliff,” shouted Eugene Oliver. “Ah love to hear tales about Ole Massa and John. John sho was one smart nigger.”

So Cliff Ulmer went on.

Here we can see a kind of egalitarian version of a Kantian poetic practice. Just as in Kant, aesthetic production is play, but here that play is definitively in opposition to labor. The play, however, is not the kind of leisure practice that recuperates the worker for work the next day. It’s not a means of socializing the subject for a culture of wage labor as we saw in Addison. Rather, the “lies” men share underline through exaggeration the injustice of the capitalist institution of manual wage labor.

In Kant, also, the subject would be “judging” the “lies,” deeming them beautiful or not. Only the genius would be producing them. Here, the men go around in a circle, each displaying his own talents for poetic comparison and encouraging one another to continue. There’s also a historical lineage being produced. As they attempt to walk away from their current dilemma, each “lie” reaches further into the past. First, the personal pasts of the men speaking, then to their shared historical past of slavery. These quick poetic quips lead to Cliff Ulmer’s three-page tale of how the slave John hoodwinked his master. The poetic pieces ultimately present the workers as mentally superior to their overseers. The poetic act is an act of improvised freedom, one that allows the men to be something more than “hands,” so that each is “as big a liar as you is a man.” They are men here, not mules.  

If we place this account of poetic practice against the account of Spahr, Bernes, and Clover, we see that Poetry is always in the service of a sociality, but not necessarily the dominant sociality. When a person patterns words, other people gather round. What’s done with that kind of gathering is up for grabs.

Next time: Zora the Academic