“Saw it in a store, one day
Thought it might make me play
Future music all for you”
(Earth, Wind and Fire 1977)
Black futurity is often recognized by its ability to employ artifacts of the past in the creation of future thought. In the song Kalimba Story, Earth Wind and Fire praise the Kalimba, an ancient African instrument, for its ability to create “future music,” noting its particular vibrational qualities. The melodic resonance of the notes seems to flow outward in ever expanding waves like ripples through space and time. As of late, I find myself reaching back toward ancient things to help me glimpse possible futures. The elements, more ancient than life itself, have become the curve in my lens.
In my work The Poetic and The Visual, fire, water, earth, and air fill the frame in echo of the experiences that have tuned my creative mind. They reach back in reference but also hurtle forward toward my future viewer with new messages that I could never foresee. Because this film is a true collaboration, the words of Ms. Osman further impact the images onscreen, providing evidence of the dialectic between her thoughts and mine. We are interdisciplinary at a time when interdisciplinarity is not welcome. Currently there exist clearly delineated structures in art production which the futurist in me finds wanting. How can we see if there are boundaries on all sides? How can we hear if some sonic registers are not allowed? How can we feel if certain classes of textures are absent by exclusion? Visual art and poetry are driven by stimuli. Art is a response to provocation. I choose to be provoked by the storm and the expanse in an effort to clarify the messages I send to the future. I seek the Sublime as a source of destruction and genesis knowing it will strip me clean of the identities imposed upon me which limit my ability to be an open space.
«Terror is the ruling principle of the sublime» (Burke, 1767). The raging wind, burning fire, and crashing waves are so often characters in the Sublime. The expansive desolation of deserts, the oppressive beauty of the bayou, or the raging sea are all sources of the Sublime. These are places of inexpressible beauty and terror. They are inhospitable to human life and yet I am drawn to their terrible perfection. Each encounter tears at my socially constructed self and I am introduced, for a short time, to my fundamental being. A being who can see well beyond the constructed parameters of our existence. As a way into our discussion we can consider Ian Boyd Whyte’s, assertion: «[…] the sublime [offers] a vehicle with which to question the dominant view of human agency on which the modern economic and political order had been established. Dismissing as reductive and one- dimensional the modern conception of the human condition as rational, progressive, and benign, the postmodern critique found in the sublime a device for exploring more profound and complex layers of meaning: the heroic, the mysterious, and the numinous» (Whyte, 2011).
For Lyotard we are “provoked” by the sublime. The sublime requires, demands, and causes one to be present. «Here. I am, here […]» (Lyotard, 1988). It is that sense of presence and the expansive landscapes which seem most capable of generating the differend, that moment of obliterative clarity which makes space for sublimity. «The ways in which we communicate are so ordered. Be it loose or rigid, we speak structure. For Lyotard, every phrase within a genre of discourse exists within a regimen: There are a number of phrase regimens: Knowing, describing, recounting, questioning, showing, ordering. etc. Phrases from heterogenous regimens cannot be translated from one into the other. They can be linked one onto the other in accordance with an end fixed by the genre of discourse» (Differend, xii).
So, the genre of discourse supplies the rules by which phrases may be linked. A structuring structure of structures all leading to the end goal of the discourse that could be as simple as a question answered or an exchange of instructional steps. But there are instances when these structuring structures fail to carry discourse to a satisfactory conclusion (Differend, 80). Upon encountering a thing which cannot be represented, one experiences an imposition of “silence.” Using the inexpressible horror of Auschwitz as an example, Lyotard writes: «The silence that surround the phrase, ‘Auschwitz was the extermination camp’, is not a state of mind, it is the sign that something remains to be phrased which is not» (Differend, 57). The horror of the Shoah creates a void in discourse nullifying Foucault’s “truth games” or Lyotard’s “language games” and “phrase regimens.” This is the differend. I am interested in the destructive dynamic of the differend. Is there utility in the silence?
An encounter with the Sublime often results in an inability to express what is seen, heard, and felt in that instance. If we are to be guided by Lyotard, then he suggests the goal of art is not communication (cultural production). For how can we name the unnameable or speak of what cannot be spoken about? Instead, the task of the arts is to «seek out their own conditions of possibility, their own rules, to generate occurrences before knowing the rules of this generativity» (Trifonova, 2007).
Even within the space of the differend — that space without discourse, there is discourse. A libidinal dialectic. There is recognition and sensation and bodily response. In the presence of the Sublime it is not your flesh that feels small. Your physical self is not obliterated by the terror and beauty to which you bear witness. It is your socialized, contextualized self that is torn asunder and rendered ridiculous. The forces which created your classed, gendered, and raced self reveal themselves to be arbitrary and capricious.
Technologies of the Self
In 1982 Michel Foucault presented a seminar at the University of Vermont. He spoke on what he described as “Technologies of the Self ”: «My objective for more than twenty-five years has been to sketch out a history of the different ways in our culture that humans develop knowledge about themselves: economics, biology, psychiatry, medicine, and penology. The main point is not to accept this knowledge at face value but to analyze these so-called sciences as very specific “truth games” related to specific techniques that human beings use to understand themselves» (Foucault 1982, pp.17-18).
I find this notion of “truth games” to be a critical component in my exploration of futurity as well as my embrace of the ways in which the Sublime obliterates context. What we know of ourselves and others is, arguably, the result of an adherence to the parameters set forth by these games. We experience a thing and then translate it into language only after referencing our currently known language structures. By prompting us to recognize these games Foucault also suggests their impermanence.
The self can be changed. It can be worked upon. It can be dismantled and reassembled in ways which cannot be contextualized. For Foucault, Technologies of the self «[…] permit individuals to effect […] a certain number of operations on their own bodies, and souls, thoughts, conduct, and way of being […]» (Foucault 1982, pp 18). One need only develop a “technique” with which to act upon the body «[…] so as to transform themselves in order to attain a certain state of happiness, purity, wisdom, perfection, or immortality» (Foucault 1982, pp 18). I engage the Sublime and let it change my eye. I let it shift my notions of the frame and acceptable levels of exposure. The Sublime has become my chosen “technique” through which I come to better understand myself.
I am emptied out and then refined by the terror and beauty of the Sublime. In the Fall of 2016 I visited for the first time, the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. The flats are a place of desolation. There is no flora or fauna because the physical conditions of the space do not permit life. And yet, this open space was gratuitously beautiful. In this place land and sky met in sumptuous reflection and I found myself awed while also knowing I was in a place inhospitable to humanity. In my work I see the Sublime as both destructive and generative. It makes and unmakes then remakes. I find now, that I am eager to insert the horizon into my frame.
The Sublime works on you. It works on your habitus. That «[…] system of generative schemes […]» described by Pierre Bourdieu «[…] which makes possible the free production of all the thoughts, perceptions, and actions […]» which conform to the conditions of its making. The Habitus is the receptacle of our knowledge; not intellectual but embodied (Bourdieu 1990, p. 55). It is the belief system that lives beneath our skin as a result of inculcation. The result of gentle but consistent pressure applied over time.
My habitus is black. It is seasoned by the visual, sonic, and haptic landscape of my life. The temporal and experiential ways we engage our realities has left me marked by many things including Earth, Wind, and Fire, the briny waves of the Pacific Ocean, and the electronic crooning of Zapp and Roger. These things are deeply embedded within me. They order my thoughts and grace my steps. Because the habitus «[…] is constituted in practice and is always oriented towards practical functions» (Bourdieu 1990, p. 52). Psychedelic Funk and Neo-Soul play out in my gestures, my posture, and my patterns of speech.
The Sublime triggers inculcation in reverse. The belief systems so deeply etched within as a result of our entire social lives begin to erode. In the space of the differend all social context disappears, and yet the rhythms in my soul remain. The differend is something like a primal, contextual void. There is nothing except the realization of “I am”. The Sublime fractures us, propelling us into the differend as nothing but what we are, temporarily. We cannot stay within that contextual void for any length of time but we are nevertheless changed by our brief visit. I have found that there are two levels of imprinting upon the human mind and soul. The surface, social self is the shallower imprint susceptible to dismantling and destruction. But there is a second, deeper imprint pressed into us through drums and songs and stories and love. I have no language for this mark but I have witnessed it within myself and it has become the source from which I draw in the creation of visual work.
Black Futurity and the Social Artifact
Engaging with the Sublime is not quiet. It is not an ‘out of body’ moment of silence. It is possible to be in the differend while in the midst of roiling thoughts focused on your survival. “I am here”. In this moment, I am and the next moment is not assured. For me the Sublime is liberating, emancipatory, enfranchising, and unfettering all at once: «Being announces itself in the imperative. Art is not a genre defined in terms of an end (the pleasure of the addressee) and still less is it a game whose rules have to be discovered; it accomplishes an ontological task that is, a ‘chronological task.’ It must constantly begin to testify anew to the occurrence by letting the occurrence be» (Lyotard, 1988). If engaging with the Sublime is a technique by which, through which, I transform myself, what kind of work, then, does that self has the potential to create? How will that work differ from that produced by the un-demolished, un-obliterated self? As I continue to employ the Sublime to unmake and remake my notions of self, I hope to produce visual work that does not present its subjects in conceptually subjugated ways. My work is not meant to defy expectation, but simply disregard expectation altogether. There is no conflict here because there is no context. The work is not produced as a counter-narrative even though that is what it will ultimately become. I do not intend to counter. The “counter” for this work, to this work, does not exist in my maker’s mind. I wish to weave into existence the unforeseeable in an effort to make it foreseeable. I wish to speak of things which cannot be spoken about until they have been spoken about. That is the generative work of the differend. The goal is not to reproduce a sublime experience for the viewer, but instead to produce within them some feeling, uncontextualized and unsignified. A feeling they must fold into themselves and marvel at.
There is love in this futurity. Love is the driving force behind my efforts at production because it was the driving force for those who came before me. It rings in my ears even now, «Love is in his music. Love is in the songs we play […]» (Zapp and Roger, 1981). Musical arrangements and visual juxtaposition function as a time capsule delivery system sent into the future to nourish and enrich a future black soul. I now understand the social artifact as much more than an object of the present or past. A movie, or a poem, or a photograph can carry future thought hurtling both backward and forward in time. This, for me, is the pathway toward black futures. My work seeks to be open space for black souls to stretch and «be ever wonderful» (Earth Wind and Fire, 1977). As artists our work can only be emancipatory for those who engage with it once our creative processes have been set free from structuring contexts and to that effort, I seek the Sublime.
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Camille DeBose is a lecturer and award winning filmmaker in the College of Computing and Digital Media at DePaul. With a Masters degree in Sociology and an MFA in Cinema she takes an academic approach to the exploration of social forces through the analysis and production of film. Her first film, ‘Good Hair’ and other Dubious Distinctions sparked conversation on intra-cultural racism and the “othering” which occurs inside one’s own community. Her second film, On Fathers and Sons and Love explored the lives of four generations of men through the lens of the Harvard Grant Study, prompting conversations on the role love plays in the lives of men and their families. DePaul magazine noted: «The film turns a sharp eye on the ways masculinity is challenged and altered by the experience of fatherhood». Her films have been official selections at various film festivals including the Black Harvest Film Festival in Chicago, and the Langston Hughes African American Film Festival in Seattle. Her recent release: The Poetic and The Visual is the beginning of an exploratory conversation on the philosophical Sublime and the Black imagination.