Pt. 6

Cerith Wyn Evans, ‘Acephale’ (2001).
Cerith Wyn Evans, ‘Acephale’ (2001).

For a long time we have divined both order and disorder in the world and projected these as measure and excess. But every poetics led us to believe something that, of course, is not wrong: that excessiveness of order and a measured disorder exist as well. The only discernible stabilities in Relation have to do with the interdependence of the cycles operative there, how their corresponding patterns of movement are in tune. In Relation analytic thought is led to construct unities whose interdependent variances jointly piece together the interactive totality. These unities are not models but revealing echos-monde [“world-echos” or feedback]. Thought makes music. — Édouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation[1]

The poem constitutes (and is constituted by) potential energy resonating from the practically  indiscernible event horizon(s) sundering the autonomous contours of discrete operational systems (subject from object from world). As a result, “the poem” is not just language (or, more radically, not even language), but precisely what is left unsaid in the thing itself (and how this excess disrupts the faux placidity of language through readerly engagement). Surplus meaning infloresces between reader, writer, and world in the relational space constituting the poem’s immanent outside, but it’s the poem itself, its words, that allow us to touch this remainder. As such, the poem is not so much cipher (concealing a singularly esoteric content), but an opening, a cut, as Fred Moten has it (after the work of Saidiya Hartman). 

Georges Bataille famously theorized the need for the thoroughly use-less destruction of surplus as it relates specifically to the utility of closed systems (an extirpation executed through war, sacrifice, sex, affect, etc.). In Visions of Excess, Bataille describes his own “cut” or “rupture” to, as Allan Stoekl argues in his introduction, “let out the ‘excess’ of an unmaintainable and thus delusive unity”[2] — a valve or mechanism that allows for the release of surplus energy so as to maintain an apparent equilibrium. This is, of course, what’s ultimately at issue in The Accursed Share

The living organism, in a situation determined by the play of energy on the surface of the globe, ordinarily receives more energy than is necessary for maintaining life; the excess energy (wealth) can be used for the growth of a system (e.g., an organism); if the system can no longer grow, or if the excess cannot be completely absorbed in its growth, it must necessarily be lost without profit; it must be spent, willingly or not, gloriously or catastrophically.[3]

This, of course, requires catching that excess: locating it, first and foremost, identifying its mercurial contours, knowing how to spend it. Bataille often metonymically characterizes excess through what escapes the closure (and control) of the body, what’s ultimately expelled from the gaping orifices littering the surface of the body’s organ-ic bulwark: “in order to consume an excess [...] men spit, cough, yawn, belch, blow their noses, sneeze, and cry much more than the other animals, but above all they have acquired the strange faculty of sobbing and bursting into laughter.”[4

Moten, our contemporary philosopher of excess par excellence, refers similarly to a corporeal surplus when discussing “the expression [of mourning] of a dancing civilization” (in this case, South African) in his essay “There is No Racism Intended,” which ruminates on Emmanuel Levinas’s disavowal of performative mourning in his preference for something more … “universal” … provided, according to Levinas, by “the Bible and the Greeks” (because they “present the only serious issues in human life”[5]). In this essay, Moten points to Levinas’s essay on shame and the body, “On Escape,” in which Levinas points specifically to the unruly sounds emanating from the body, a break Moten wants to fully occupy rather than forswear:

The shameful notice or notation or excess of notation that marks the material irruption of our presence to ourselves is given in/as sound. It disrupts, and is given in the disruption, or a relation: a scar, a rivet, or the mark of a rivet or being riveted which is the mark, in its turn, of something Lacan would call an irreducible “dehiscence at the very heart of the organism,” an interinanimation of bridge and chasm.[6]

Rather than disavow the “dehiscence” of the wound, however, Moten “wants to inhabit the break, the broken vessel”[7] before excess folds back into an esculent, delusive unity, allowing for a new level of circulation thanks to the object’s fungibility. 

Moten sees in lacerated legibility a kind of “surplus lyricism,” which can be (and likely will be) figured, from the perspective of neocolonial hegemony, as more appropriately atonal lyricism, or mere threnody (Levinas claims “they,” South Africans, “weep differently”). To illustrate this lyricism, he turns to Billie Holiday’s Lady in Satin, in which he claims, 

The lady in satin uses the crack in the voice, extremity of the instrument, willingness to fail reconfigured as a willingness to go past [...] The crack in the voice is an abundant loss, the strings a romance with what she don’t need and already has. The crack is like that laugh in the voice of “My Man” — trace of some impossible initial version or inaugurative incident and effect of the resistance and excess of every intervening narrative and interpretation.[8

In the cut, surplus lyricism escapes the kind of closure that treats object like aperitif — performance exceeds itself as “object” to highlight its haecceity. The jagged edge of the break peeks through the disjointed imbrication of the market’s palimpsestuous reterritorialization, highlighting how the black object eschews easy reincorporation. 

Moten’s description of the resistance of the black object completely recasts the excess of the art object when figured as a resistance to value systems meant to collapse and reterritorialize this surplus (and in this case, specifically, Moten refers to the surplus of black bodies: for example, Moten’s analysis offers “a lived critique of the assumed equivalence of personhood and subjectivity and, by extension, a force of resistance or objection that is always already in excess of the limits of subjection/ subjectivity”[9]). Rather than attempt to destroy or consume excess in a Bataillian fashion, Moten sees surplus lyricism as what specifically abnegates (or at the very least challenges) neocolonial appropriation writ large:

See, black performance has always been the ongoing improvisation of a kind of lyricism of the surplus — invagination, rupture, collision, augmentation. This surplus lyricism — think here of the muted, mutating horns of Tricky Sam Nanton or Cootie Williams — is what a lot of people are after when they invoke the art and culture — the radical (both rooted and out there, immanent and transcendent) sensuality — of and for my people. […] Such blackness is only in that it exceeds itself; it bears the groundedness of an uncontainable outside. It’s an erotics of the cut, submerged in the broken, breaking space-time of an improvisation. Blurred, dying life; liberatory, improvisatory, damaged love; freedom drive.[10]

To conceive of Bataille’s conception of excess is to assume that the poem can exceed its own utility; that one understands this utility; that value can be measured; that surplus energy can ultimately be captured; that excess is ultimately less valuable than the spurious totality it exceeds. Further, the poem’s excess is supplemented by the reader’s own surplus: that is, the work of art is a relational field completed by the reader’s remainder. In order to truly conceive of the value of surplus, “we have to invent,” as Glissant suggests, “a knowledge that would not serve to guarantee its norm in advance but would follow excessively along to keep up with the measurable quantity of its vertiginous variances”[11]. To destroy excess assumes that this surplus can be had, manipulated, ultimately captured and reterritorialized. But as Moten proves at length across his body of work, the object resists capture, in part because so much of its surplus is very real, very present, but functionally incorporeal. The object exceeds itself not only in its performance, in its value, but in its incorporeality, which Elizabeth Grosz describes (in relation to the Stoic conception of “lekta”) as, “the inherence of an excess, a sense, in things beyond their current state, the condition under which things change, the becoming of things, whether material or ideal, the conditions under which they can be thought and spoken.”[12

In order to understand how the energy of the poem is reconfigured by the reader who enters the poem’s forcefield, it’s instructive to understand what he means by “object-in-practice,” a conception of art that disallows disappearing subject into object, “personhood” into “subjection/subjectivity,” or valuing the object while dehumanizing or “creaturing” the object’s author. This concept is especially important when it comes to imagining “the conditions under which [things] can be thought and spoken”: 

The eclipse of objects by practices is a head, a necessary opening, that vanishes in the improvisatory work of those who are not but nothing other than objects themselves. (Black) performances are resistances of the object and the object is in that it resists, is in that it is always the practice of resistance. And if we understand race, class, gender, and sexuality as the materiality of social identity, as the surplus effect and condition of possibility of production, then we can also understand the ongoing, resistive force of such materiality as it plays itself out in/as the work of art. This is to say that these four articulating structures must not only be granted historicity, politics, and practice, but aesthesis as well. This is also to say that the concept of the object of performance studies is (in) practice precisely at the convergence of the surplus [...] and the aesthetic.[13]

While Moten is rightfully wary of the fetish character of “the magic of the surplus,” understanding the poem as an “object-of-practice” allows for a kind of degeneralization that allows each poem to rise to the surface as an object in relation to a specific personhood in relation to specific social conditions in relation to “the materiality of social identity” in relation to a reader (similarly a specific personhood in relation to specific social conditions in relation to “the materiality of social identity,” etc.) that resists the attempt to universalize or generalize in order to ultimately destroy surplus or infold it back into production to make better use of it. As Glissant has it,    

For centuries “generalization,” as operated by the West, brought different community tempos into an equivalency in which it attempted to give a hierarchical order to the times they flowered. Now that the panorama has been determined and equidistances described, is it not, perhaps, time to return to a no less necessary “degeneralization”? Not to a replenished outrageous excess of specificities but to a total (dreamed-of) freedom of the connections among them, cleared out of the very chaos of their confrontations.[14]

1. Édouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1997), 92–93.

2. Georges Bataille, Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927–1939 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985), xxi.

3. Georges Bataille, The Accursed Share: Volume 1 (New York: Zone Books, 1991), 21.

4. Bataille, Visions, 89. 

5. Fred Moten, The Universal Machine (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018), 1.

6. Moten, Machine, 51. 

7. Moten, Machine, 51. 

8. Fred Moten, In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), 107.

9. Moten, Break, 242.

10. Moten, Break, 26.

11. Glissant, Poetics, 102. 

12. Elizabeth Grosz, The Incorporeal: Ontology, Ethics, and the Limits of Materialism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017), 72.

13. Fred Moten, Black and Blur (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017), 35.

14. Glissant, Poetics, 62.