There are certain truths we hold to be self-evident, axiomatic even. And friendship is no exception when it comes to the declaration of such purported claims. It always begins with best of intentions: “you deserve love!” they say to me, big smiles, warm hearts, open minds. Still, I end up thinking, “well, who doesn’t?” Of course, “well, who doesn’t?” is almost a non sequitur, almost a straw man query. Almost. What the non-verbalized response does is displace the initiating remark just long enough to consider all the baggage our intentions – whether for good or ill – traffic in. Like, what’s love got to do with it? It being deservability? We tend to talk about love as a thing folks can earn, as a resource that is limited and, thus, as a resource that should be rationed out, lest we squander it. We submit love to our ideas of conservation, that if we give away too much, it will dwindle, it will dissipate. Like so many Clair Hanks Huxtables, we will be so fatigued that we will “have nothing left to give.”The conversation about how love is deserved for me – always of the romantic type, to be sure – typically emerges because I intimate that I’d like love, that I want it, that I seek some sorta romantic, erotic sociality that develops over time and space.
So a friend will ask, “do you want to be in a relationship?”I’ll reply, “I definitely want to be in one!”And the friend, with the best of intentions, “aww! I hope you find the one…you deserve it!”
What does deserving have to do with desire? We don’t typically declare that we’ve worked hard to find something along the order of romantic relationships: as old adages go, you won’t find it until you stop looking for it. But the idea keeps emerging: that the folks we deem good enough, smart enough, cool enough are “deserving” of love. I tweeted a while back that this idea of deserving bothers me. It bothers me because it displaces pleasure, it displaces desire, in the service of the sensible, in the service of the rational. Affection, care, concern are – as much as I can tell – extravagant and superfluous, they are uncontainable and uncontrollable. They are – as love – the very antithesis and resistance to that which can be earned. What would it mean if we did not try to force desire –pleasure itself – into the mode of needing be justified? What if pleasure and desire need not cohere with sensibilities in order for us to think along and with them? And what would an ethics of pleasure and desire – liberated from rationality and sense-making – mean for the way we conduct ourselves in the service of justice? Thomas Jefferson was wrong about lots of things, but happiness – which is to say pleasure, desire – was not one of them. So let us, like him, enter into its pursuit.
Much ado has been made over Beyoncé’s new album – just a bit over a week old – Beyoncé. What most intrigues me – and it seems lots of folks, actually – are the discussions that emerged regarding the very possibility for her being a feminist. Brittney Cooper at the Crunk Feminist Collective stated that some folks had their “panties in a wad” when “Bow Down, I Been On” was released but that, fundamentally, Beyoncé is a “work in progress.” Over at Global Grind, Christina Coleman stated that Beyoncé not only snatched edges but the ones of a particularly feminist variety. Bee Rowlatt opined that it was Blue Ivy, ultimately, who transformed Beyoncé into a feminist. But not so fast: Real Colored Girls took umbrage with the very idea that she’s a feminist, using Pimp Theory to found their claim. Mia McKenzie, as well, questioned, “are we really arguing that calling yourself a feminist while allowing your husband to spit incredibly disgusting anti-woman shit alongside you on your album is just as legit as not calling yourself a feminist while demonstrating consistent feminist ideals…”? Even a white gay dude – Matt Capetola – weighed in, stating that Beyoncé didn’t do enough to include “the Gays” in her album, that, actually, it was an intentional choice, “an act of willed exclusion.” Lots, in other words, has been written about Beyoncé’s capacity to be a particular kind of object, which – it seems to me – has its foundational claim based on a critique of pleasure and desire itself, regardless of whether one is in favor of or against (or somewhere in the middleverse) her being a feminist.
All the writings – both in favor of and against Beyoncé in this context – are grounded in a desire to justify why one does or does not dig Beyoncé, why one casts or does not cast her as feminist. These are all ways to have pleasurable experience make sense, to make pleasure cohere and concretize in ways that are acceptable. We have no room for excess, excess that goes beyond words, beyond language, into another realm altogether; excess that glories in the audiovisuality of sensual experience; excess that is constitutive for otherwise modes of inhabitation in the world that refuses rationality – constrained thought – as primary. Yet here we are: having to make objects “make sense” for our politics, having to justify our experiences of pleasure, lest folks come for our feminist cards. The conversation about the very possibility of feminism is delimited by the horizon of what feminism is supposed to be, to use my colleague Nick Mitchell’s terminology, as a “disciplinary matter.”The problem with thinking modes of existence through disciplinary projects is that it does not deal well with excess. These disciplinary projects are all about, in a word, containment. And such is the case with the Beyoncé argument – some call it “war” – about the very possibility of her being delimited in a concept called “feminism.” The disciplinary concept itself declares some behaviors, as an a priori principle, beyond its horizon as rule, as law. These modes of knowledge production are about the justification for, and perpetuation of, institutions, the justification for, and perpetuation of, categorically distinct – which is to say, contained and non-excessive – thought. Such that these disciplines don't deal well with wordlessness or celebration. Such that within these disciplines, things, topics and ideas can be objects of knowledge we grasp but certainly not objects that have within the capacity to genuinely move, which is to say queer, us. We make objects cohere with our political projects even if the objects bespeak their own internal incoherence, their own internal indecipherability. And only after we’ve determined that such objects do or don't cohere do we allow their entrance into our rhetorical-theoretical domains as acceptable or are shunned. The very grounds upon which the capacity for one to be a feminist, in other words, is about the political desires, the futural visions, of the analyst, not the object. And this is a problem as old as Bishop Daniel Alexander Payne's breaking up ring shouts – expressions of black faith, of black religiosity; a problem as old as E Franklin Frazier – after Payne – with his placement Holiness/Pentecostal churches under the heading “cults” in his sociological work.
Both Payne and Frazier are examples of a fundamental renunciation of pleasure that animates certain strains of disciplinary knowledges, opting instead to cohere around traumatic experience. Both theorists of black religion targeted black flesh as that which needed to be controlled, restrained even at the point of coercion, in order to demonstrate “proper” modes of religious reflection and piety. Black flesh, they believed, was acting otherwise than rationally, was deepening a relation to the improper. Both Payne and Frazier – even with the best of intentions, even while declaring themselves not only friends of, but named themselves as, negroes – considered the exuberant, dancing, expressive flesh of blackness as fundamentally in excess of confessions of faith. Neither Payne nor Frazier could, it seems, understand the desire to celebrate religiosity in ways that foreground the flesh nor understand the pleasure found in such celebration, particularly for a people whose flesh was always already hypersexualized, lascivious, queered. Don’t they know that all this celebration of flesh – in the flesh – will be a cause for others’ concerns about black flesh generally, so the line of reasoning went. Zora Neale Hurston though, when writing about the same Holiness/Pentecostals Frazier would, observed differently because she took seriously the possibility for her objects to exert a “dispossessive force" on her, a dispossessive force we might call Black Study. Hurston showed us, in other words, how to think with objects rather than for them, how to let objects speak for themselves and – in so speaking – provide the possibility for moving her, moving us. The dispossessive force of an object is grounded in its fundamental, irreducible incoherence, its originary excess.
The problem with marshaling feminism as a disciplinary matter to discuss Beyoncé is because of the way it precludes the possibility of pleasure itself – enjoyment of the album – to be anything other than a political object and, thus, a political declaration. You know, the personal is political. If you enjoy the album, it would seem, you have a certain set of political commitments that need be interrogated. However, when used as a political object and declaration, the “political” is coeval with “the traumatic” and the very possibility for a Beyoncé feminism – as the grounds upon which identification and enjoyment of Beyoncé’s art occurs – is foregrounded in the traumatic, not the celebratory. And this even when the album itself seems to want to linger in the possibilities for celebration and not trauma – even during moments of melancholy like “Heaven”’s recollection of miscarriage, even during moments of seeming rhetorical sexual violation like Ike/Tina cake references. The political, to be precise, is focused on the otherwise than fleshly – erotic, libidinous – experience. The political, rather than pleasure, is forced to be founded upon claims about traumatic experience of black girl- and womanhood. This allows for arguments about Beyoncé – and desires to be in relation with her and other black women – to use traumatic experience as the basis for teleology rather than disbelief in the conditions of the world that privilege marginalization of Othered folks.
To bespeak how Beyoncé’s album is an acceptable articulation of feminist politic, as a veritable “work in progress,” because it begins in a certain place but will, hopefully, end up somewhere otherwise and more radical is to consider her art as serving a Bildungsroman, some larger teleological principle. This mode of analysis may be well and good except it, again, displaces the capacity of the analyst’s pleasure and enjoyment to be adjunct to the politic. Pleasure and enjoyment are repressed in the service of a political claim for pleasure and enjoyment. In order to enjoy the album, the object Beyoncé is instrumentalized, her art is forced to cohere with a political itinerary such that enjoyment and pleasure emerge from the seemingly consistent political protocol. These sorts of analyses, however, make little room for the sorta excessiveness of desire, of enjoyment and pleasure as enjoyment and pleasure. The very erotics that make the album possible, it seems, are renounced in order to rhetorically claim the political nature of the erotics, the pleasure, the enjoyment of the object.
Are we enjoying or not enjoying the object or our arguments about the object?
Beyoncé’s is a audiovisual movement and the audiovisuality of it all approaches something like a refusal of one, lone, sensual experience. Growing up Blackpentecostal, I realize that there are some experiences that refuse words, that refuse intelligible speech and linguistics. Blackpentecostals speak in tongues because words fail to capture something that we're trying to bespeak. The experience of glossolalia – like love, like pleasure – is excessive. But this excess is constitutive for a critique of both theology and philosophy as categories of thought that delimit what do and do not count as intellectual projects. Crissle’s “oh my God!” and KidFury’s entire reaction to the album are instructive: though words were spoken, what is evident is the lack of language to account for the very experience of joy, exuberance, happiness – which is constantly pursued – that was had. A refusal to make it “make sense,” then, does not negate one’s enjoyment and pleasure but, perhaps, heightens one’s awareness to the nuances and possibilities of imagination.
Thus far, the arguments about the im/possibility of a feminist Beyoncé on Beyoncé are grounded in what the lyrics – or images – say. And never the twain shall meet. Is she saying she likes to have him “beat it up”…? Is her lack of clothing visually too titillating for a married woman with a child? These arguments treat text as totalizing. The possibility for feminism is relegated to the word, to the analyst’s ability to see and read clearly, to an enlightened mode of thought that privileges the individual reader, the individual viewer. But perhaps it is important that Jay doesn’t show up in the audiovisual experience until after “Haunted,” a decidedly first foray into conceptualizing identity and difference in the album. This song circumvents Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way,” and asserts – through audiovisual precision – that however you were born, whether like “that” or not, your personhood should be respected, your personhood should have – indeed – pleasure, even in the most unlikely of spaces. And in “Yoncé,” another woman-appearing person licked Beyoncé’s breast, and she did not shun but smirked through the experience. There was no dude (cis- or otherwise) that we can attribute such an action or gaze to…it happened, it seems, for the simple pleasure of the experience itself. And though “Drunk In Love” seems to have caused much controversy because of the “eat the cake, Anna Mae” comment, as one friend reminded folks on Facebook, people do not think that references to “you told Harpo to beat me” in black popular culture are fundamentally about the celebration of violence. More, many of the queer folks I’ve talked to seem to think – and I’d agree – that within the context of a rap about sexual positions and fun, that perhaps “eat the cake” is about analingus and not violence nor violation. But one would have to be open to queer sexualities as a way of life and not think that heterosexual sex is limited to missionary positions and one-directional penetrations.
And then there is “Superpower” written by Frank Ocean. Seemingly staged in an anarchist future, these folks are those who “thought the world would move on…without us.” Of course, this could be about love – romantic or otherwise – though a queered reading would render the song about the folks that are continually marginalized and who, often, wish we were some otherwise world away. The video of the song had folks fighting against the law and this illegality, this fugitivity, will be necessary to produce justice in our continually violent world. The world can’t live without us, can’t move without us. It is, in my estimation, a claim about the necessity of you – whomever you may be – and how you are integral to movement into justice.
Perhaps this is not an album review (seriously…it’s not). Perhaps this is a way to think about what the stakes of the disagreement being had are. Perhaps we can agree that though artist intention is important, just as important is what art makes possible to think, to imagine, to conceive. Perhaps hearing Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie will be a first move into something like justice work. Perhaps not. Perhaps seeing the flesh of a black woman both complicatedly concerned and hyper aware of, but also seemingly insouciant regarding, her appearance will allow other black girls and women – both cis- and trans* – to consider the value of their own flesh, the praiseworthiness it holds, the sacredness that it is. But, of course also, perhaps not. What we are compelled to allow for is slipperiness and incoherence, for friendship – as Michel Foucault would have it – as a way of life. What we must do, in other words, is to allow for the force of inventing one’s life worlds as one goes along through moments in times as yielding the possibility for justice. With this friendship, we need not give empty platitudes about what one deserves nor what one has earned, we need not enclose and contain someone within our political projects as objects for our analysis that have nothing to give … but what we can give is reciprocity, support, love, critical feedback, accountability.