in conversation with Lauren O’Neill-Butler
“When living honorably is more important than staying alive, you’re ready to fight effectively for what you believe in.”
Lyle, you came up when I interviewed John Akomfrah. He and I were talking about how many prolific Black scholars and artists have passed through California at some point, and he mentioned encountering you when he taught there briefly, while you were doing your MFA at CalArts in the early ’90s.
Yes. My first semester in grad school at CalArts was in 1989 when Steven Lavine, who had recently come from the Rockefeller Foundation, was its president. At the time, a range of academics, artists and scholars were being invited on campus through the art department as part of its academic programs focused on “minority” art and artists. In that context, I believe one of the first persons I met was bell hooks, who had been invited to conduct a one-week seminar. Then I met Marlon Riggs, who came to CalArts for a presentation about his new film Tongues Untied, and it was through him that I met the poet/activist Essex Hemphill. That same semester John Akomfrah came with Reece Auguiste, both of whom had been members of the Black Audio Film Collective, and it was through them that I met Stuart Hall. Also, during that same period, Coco Fusco visited CalArts—just to give you a sense of who I was encountering at that time as one of a few people of color in the art program, although the school’s academic program exemplified what would be considered a “center-left progressive” discourse. Had I not encountered bell and participated in her one-week seminar I would not be who I am today. It transformed my life. She delineated white supremacy and exposed how it operated, even within those spaces of progressive thought and critical theory. She affirmed my own voice. We met in the context of the classroom, which was my earliest experience of bell hooks. It started in the context of that one-week seminar, then we became friends. I'm going to share a few photographs, some Polaroids that she inscribed with poetic words, shot when she and her beloved Anthony visited me in my studio at the Los Altos apartments in LA in the early 1990s.
This is an amazing thing to share with us, Lyle.
Thank you. I was barely aware these existed—I mean, I had an idea, but when going through the hundreds, if not thousands, of Polaroids in my archive—oh my God, I totally forgot about these! I’d also forgotten that she actually had written directly on the Polaroids themselves.
That first poem on the first Polaroid about "seeing me unmasked, naked and unashamed," has such resonance for us right now in our time, right? Unmasking becomes a reverberation backwards and forward. Thank you, Lyle.
The photos are making me think about the social, intimate, and pedagogical relations that form a practice and a lineage—especially what it means to mentor and be mentored. It's making me think about what we have in common in this room. A lot of us have been through the same institutions, have been taught by the same people, or have even been taught by each other. One of the things bell hooks's work has prompted me to think more deeply about is how relations are part of a pedagogical practice—and of course about the liberatory potential of pedagogy. Pedagogy doesn't necessarily happen in the places and institutions that we are told that we're meant to find it in. In a lot of ways, it's a poetic structure that despite any organizational hierarchy, can have an open-endedness to it. To me, the poems written on the photographs perhaps mark these moments of intimacy that grew from pedagogy. They formalize a very bell hooks way of thinking about what we can teach each other and learn from each other—and how these acts of teaching and learning build something very powerful and beautiful.
The notion of institutions seems like a good place to pause—just to think about how much there was in hooks's writing on institutions outside of the ones with the walls and the websites and the email addresses. It's just so striking to read about the discussions that she had with her sisters, or someone she knew, or something that her grandmother said. It floored me—how she'd be working through something, and then would go and consult with someone in her family or someone in her community. And then that's brought in as valid scholarship. It's so liberatory and counter to the default academic mode of research and theory, where there are two entities that matter in whatever you write: a previous body of scholarly work, and then the responses generated by your mind and your mind alone. Can you imagine having the freedom to consult with your sibling and ask, well, what do you think of this? What do you think of this art? And being able to weave that in as a source?
Yes, bell hooks's citational practices are inspiring because she really shows that there are references to be gathered from so many places. I haven't even done this yet, but in the past few days it occurred to me to invite my brother to a class. It just had never occurred to me—my own brother, right? He's someone who's known me as an academic, as a scholar, who's like, “Okay, my sister does this thing, she's in school forever, we don't her know from her dissertation...” But now only as I'm finding a way to create independent scholarly space for myself and/or independent of those institutions with websites and such, right does it occur to me how I might invite my family to think with me. Because institutions are not just synonymous with white space necessarily, right?
One passage from hooks’s Killing Rage that struck me, in the introduction, she writes, "And though many of us were taught that the repression of our rage was necessary to stay alive in the days before racial integration, we now know that one can be exiled forever from the promise of economic wellbeing if that rage is not permanently silenced." It’s just so clear the way that that one sentence describes so much of my experience even before the art world. So, before I was writing reviews or engaging in New York art space or whatever, in academic philosophy, I felt no less silenced, right?
hooks talks about the way that one is expected to not even enter into the discourse on race talk—and that's still true, right? You give up or you potentially put yourself in a position where you might be giving up already questionable femme identity to engage in race talk. By talking about racism you fail to meet the expectations of true womanhood even today, right? So, there's a certain way in which one must prepare oneself or arrange oneself in just such a manner, so that one can offer the possibility of being available as a woman first, and then you can speak. Maybe.
In terms of the idea of memorialization—whether bell or Toni Morrison or Greg Tate—it's important to remember that those three people were drawing on a legion of histories and epistemologies spanning generations. John Akomfrah observed that the problem with the Black avant garde is that we’re constantly having to reproduce it. And I’m also thinking about Isabel Wilkerson's book Caste in terms of other ways to frame those histories. While their writings galvanized a certain energy at a specific time, it's also important to consider their particular histories. And maybe that's what makes these losses so devastating. For example, I’m remembering bell’s particular form of transgression in speaking truth to power woven together with the poetics of desire and intimacy, whether she was speaking in one-on-one conversations or in written language critiquing racist institutions or repressive Black bourgeois academia. I can recall bell's 2016 critique calling out Beyoncé’s Lemonade album for its deep capitalist complicity and the degree of opprobrium she received for that. And thinking about the recent suicide of Miss America Cheslie Kryst, who at the age of thirty felt that she was too old—is there anyone today who could speak to that in as powerful a way as bell hooks?
The intersection between what you and Darla are both speaking to is why I fell in love with bell. The two critiques that I received as a young person (and continue to receive) are that I am too angry and that I am too much. I was told, “You can't find a problem with every single thing, everything can't be perfect.” I'm told that especially in my pursuits in the margins: I work within Asian American spaces and I'm a mixed Asian person, and I have frustrations within those spaces; I'm a queer person, and I have frustrations within those spaces; I'm a first-generation immigrant person, frustration within those spaces. There's a fierce act of loving that comes with having trust in conveying your displeasure, of sharing your oppositional gaze with people and of having a practice of trust and intimacy around that.
The first person to give me a bell hooks book was a childhood best friend who went to college before me. We were both queer folks growing up in DC with extremely high expectations from parents and I became sick in high school and went mad at the same time and was constantly told that it was my anger that was making me sick and mad. I was told that I was trying to pile too much into every situation, that not everything was about everything, that there were things that you could parcel apart (which is something that my therapist continues to say to me today). And I'm like, no, everything is about everything. My friend brought me back a battered-up copy of All About Love. When I read it, I was shaken: this person is saying "everything is about everything.” They are bringing in film theory, they are bringing in critical race theory, colonization, patriarchy, Black feminism, they are bringing in everything and they're saying that it can and does all exist and overlap. They're saying that rage and love and intimacy can exist in the same place, but you need to see the lines that separate them. It's that we have been confused by generations of abuse and violence and a hand that we must kiss—after it hits us. It is all of these things layered on top of each other that we have to look directly in the eye and push back with our gaze. And that silence itself is a text to be broken open. That felt really significant to me. I saw bell, when I was an undergraduate and she was at The New School giving a series of lectures. That was the years of Beyonce terrorism. That was the years that she was receiving rage, predominantly from young women of color who were saying, "Look, we see what you're saying, we see the perspective and the lineage that you're speaking to, and also you have to listen to the way that we're moving."
I think that bell shows me what happens when we persevere across time. On Speaking Freely she speaks to the courageous act of capturing your language and actually putting it into text, actually putting something out there and receiving bad criticism and feedback and hatred and vitriol from the people, from your family, from your friends, from your community, from your peers, over and over again. Not from the white supremacists that you expected from, but from the people in your own department. Returning, and continuing to produce, that practice is one of trust, a belief in pushing the limits of imagination. That was important to me, because I was used to being able to take a bunch of words, weapons, and theoretical practice out of my pocket and push people back into their place. Having somebody who insisted that we had to keep practicing was an incredibly important thing, a reminder that rage and intimacy needed to be held in the same place in order for us to move through our thoughts. That exercise was part of the pedagogical work that she insisted upon. I am speaking non-Black person who has greatly benefited from the Black feminist scholarship and from the institution of Black feminism and Black womanism, which has received criticism and feedback both externally and internally and withstood across centuries and generations. bell acknowledges in her vigorous citation that she is not the first person to do this, that her own work is a constant citation writers before her. The implicit and explicit practice of weaving in scholars before her, making sure that other people don't appear nameless, is part of what invited me to try not to be afraid and not to erase myself into obscurity for fear of being wrong (even though I still do it). It's really important especially when you're 17, to read something like that I think.
I started college at The New School while hooks was in the scholar's teaching residency. I remember skimming the course catalog the summer before starting classes and learning that hooks would be teaching and my friends who went Hampshire and Sarah Lawrence were like, “You should take classes with her.” I wasn't convinced I was ready to encounter her—I wanted to form my own relationship to in/on my own terms. So, I didn’t take her class. I needed to move to New York City, and encounter it as an architecture, before settling into any kind of cosmology that didn't feel like it could be my own. It was such a precarious time in pop culture: the beginnings of the BLM movement, and this discussion around "the body."
Aliza, I was telling Ricky earlier about how taking your classes helped bridge my thinking and the language that I use. You constantly posed a question to us: “What does it mean to be made into a fiction?” Dawn, in terms of what you were saying, with the structure of citing and seeing, hooks made her life a practice of weaving unsuspecting worlds together in a way that's both seamless, but it also continued to complicate our relationship to others, language, objects (things), and ourselves.
The passing of so many fallen heroes has been something that I've struggled with significantly, which started with [Toni] Morrison, and more recently [Greg] Tate, [Sylvère] Lotringer, and hooks. I'm not trying to denounce any form of specificity of place and time, but merely to acknowledge that we have lost thought leaders, people who made institutions out of their experiences, who made shelter and built worlds out of their pain, love, and sacrifice. My intention isn't to denounce those who they might be in conversation with or are referencing—but more that I'm mourning the people who helped me see myself and understand others. When engaging with people online, I witnessed a lot of people make the mourning of these scholars about themselves—how they met, the encounter, and the ways they complimented them. I'm not interested in policing how people mourn but it didn't feel like mourning as a citational practice or wake work but mourning as ego. It was devastating for me.
To the degree that bell was talking back at a specific time and from the specific place that she came from—southern Black working class Kentucky—and to arrive at Yale and then Stanford, that’s what made her poetic transgressions of race, class and gender so radical. That’s why I think it's important to give due consideration to the politics of location. So for all of us—where are we from? The genius of bell can be seen in her capacity to push against the boundaries of what could and could not be spoken. I’d like to hear more from Aliza, Dawn, and Ricky—where are you each coming from at this moment in paying tribute to bell, who dealt with the specificity of her own location, history, and life?
That's a really interesting challenge to pose to us Lyle. I have a thought about this and I'm worried it's not going to be particularly satisfying, but I think I'm just going to put it out there anyway and see how it goes. I really appreciate what you said, Parissah, and I've been thinking a lot about the debt I owe as a non-Black person to the Black feminism that has so profoundly influenced my feminism and my way of thinking. I remember very vividly feeling a moment of recognition when I first read bell hooks—it was a feeling of reading in the words of another something you know to be true about yourself. I have a specific memory from her essay “Theory as a Liberatory Practice” in which she writes, "I came to theory because I was hurting—the pain within me was so intense that I could not go on living. I came to theory desperate, wanting to comprehend—to grasp what was happening around and within me." But what does that recognition really mean? And I want to bring this back to your question, Lyle. The specificity of identity matters and the broad strokes that are often shorthand for certain kinds of experiences are insufficient for attending to the absolute specificity that bell hooks brought to her writing. At the same time, reading and writing can be ways of orienting yourself in the world—especially for those of us who might find that difficult. My parents are immigrants from two very different places. My dad is Transcarpathian, which I'm sure is something no one here has heard of—and honestly is something I don't really understand all that well myself even. My family story, like many, is marked by historical dispossession and genocide as well as personal estrangement. I don't really know my people. And that's hard for me. So, bell hooks's specificity resonates with an ambiguity in me. Her practice or theory gives me a way of orienting myself in the world.
I grew up in a southern Chinese city and moved to New York for college. When I arrived in the US, my exposure to the tradition of Black radicalism has been instrumental for building my moral and political coordinates. It is through the lens of this tradition that I have come to know America as it really is. bell hooks’s writing holds a special place for me because her mode of address feels very near to me. There is an intimacy that one doesn’t often encounter in radical traditions of any kind. Hers is most explicit when she writes about the home. Her constant sketching of the domestic as a space of power and art has been a provocative lesson for me. It has helped me locate the dynamics of the familial at the frontier of political struggle and aesthetic practice. I wasn’t really thinking about the space of the home before.
Aliza was talking about how bell hooks taught us that pedagogy does not necessarily happen in institutionalized teaching space. When I was reading hooks’s essay “Black Vernacular: Architecture as Cultural Practice,” I wondered how we look for architecture that’s not supposed to be architecture? How do we look, for example, at the home and other places architecturally, but also politically?
I can't help but think of the Olympic medalist Agnes Tirop, a Kenyan long-distance runner who was stabbed to death by her husband in the intimacy of her home last year just ten days before her twenty-sixth birthday. It would be interesting to see and bear witness to those spaces in which violence actually gets played out. Maybe that offers a way of connecting with the imaginary through the act of looking at an architectural site, which can also be an intimate space of violence and desire, but also death. I'm interested in that.
I mean, I can't think of a more prolific writer. On the one hand, there is someone who has written their selfhood into text in such a specific and well documented way. On the other hand, she has kept such security around her personal life, such privacy. When Lyle and I were working on his archive I was tasked with going through and finding all the pictures of bell that we would want to use and then printing them out for her and asking her permission to use them. I was so nervous because I was 22. I'd only ever read her and looked up to her immensely and it felt so obtrusive for me to be writing to her directly. She very carefully selected the ones that she felt comfortable with and removed others—she ripped them up and destroyed them. This control and obscurity, weaves its way throughout her work. How are you are making yourself legible and who are you making yourself legible to? She talks about walking that tight rope constantly. What are the limits of language and how are you making yourself accessible to the masses? She was in invested in mass mobilization. She was invested in a feminism for everyone, but also a feminism that was insistently Black, insistently in a lineage of womanism, insistently in a lineage of Black Southern feminisms, of kitchen table feminisms, of working-class feminisms, of the lineage specifically of people who are descendants of enslaved people.
I really was excited to speak about Talking Back. I think that's a really important piece for any of us who were raised an environment where active speech had a razored edge in some capacity. I'm also thinking about this dislocation that we're all feeling in various ways. Almost all of us have identified some form of migration— internal migration or external migration. It feels like a reflection of the way that the United States specifically creates the fiction of migration as mobility and the promise of mobility. But it erases the caveat of detachment. So much of the offering of class mobility is detachment from places and the need for erasure. So much of the offering of migration is an erasure ethnicity or specificity of identity, or linguistic identity. It produces the need straddle the line between, "Am I hiding a piece of my identity, or am I not wanting to tokenize myself in this space?"
bell invites me to questions of how many times am I filtering myself through an element of a supremacist gaze to make myself palatable to others and in my own reflection, to orient in this environment? What does it mean for the gaze to constantly be mediated? Reading bells’ writing was particularly important in college when encountering the gaze for the first time. Her writing offered new versions of seeing narratives that shape everyday life. Her writing spoke of the layering of stories, of our erasures, of the suppressions we have withstood in order to have a moment of joy. She speaks of the necessity of the theater to feel the darkness of a room around us for a single second, and then endeavor for a moment to insert ourselves, then to feel disgusted by this insertion and reflection in this image. And the anxiety that we could betray our mothers who do see themselves in this representation. She wove all these layers into each other through an incredible tension that she brought in to remind us that no act of looking is without a relationship. The act of looking itself is one of the things that shapes most sharply the social relations of this world and the geopolitical relations.
She is constantly reminding us that race and gender are not shaped alone—that they are always (especially in the United States) shaped by class, and they all inform one another. We're in a specific political moment right now that is incredibly classed, right? The Black Lives Matter movement in the lineage of the Black Power movement is incredibly classed. And yet so many of the people that are performing it are ignoring the class element—ignoring the fact that not being in a perpetual state of struggle is a classed position. That not having to worry about class day to day is a classed position. Not having moments to grieve is a combination of raced, classed, and gendered positionality. I think she has been able to aptly name the textures of everyday life as shaping those moments and vulnerabilities.
I keep coming back to this piece “Teaching to Transgress,” where she talks about her deep gratitude to all the people who have been able to extract from the wounds and the experiences of their bodies and tried to make theory out of them, who have tried to say "This thing that I am feeling is a text. This thing that I'm feeling can be a blueprint for somebody else to understand why there is a wound in the collective psyche, why there is a wound in the world and something that can be shaped differently and a practice that needs to be changed." This wound is not just mine. This wound is not a neoliberalized piece of transactional identity, as Darla so aptly said. It is a collective landscape that we need to be able to plug into and bring together in intimacy. And in something that we can create in exchange, going back to what Emmanuel said, making a reality between our shared experience.
So much online is largely transactional. I feel we’ve become so familiar with that and there’s a cost. As opposed to being about the transactional stuff, it’s really about a certain opening and an exchange, an intimacy. The fact is, we can all go online and engage in what’s almost a grotesquerie of mourning and grieving, as opposed to the actual underlying feelings beneath that.
It's like the wound is anthropological—that's how I see it! Lyle, what you said about the transactional made me think about "the gaze" and Laura Mulvey's text on the female gaze too. I was so bored by relentlessly encountering the text throughout school because, for me, it wasn't complicated enough. It never settled for me because I understood the gaze to be either foundational as a framework or as a lens. I was like "This is step one, layer one. There's a second layer to this, which is race." It's essential we're having the gender conversation, which is great, but there's also the racial and class aspect of it. hooks talks about Michel Foucault and "a longing to look," in her “Oppositional Gaze” text. And it made me think, what does it mean to see? The conversation hasn't been complicated enough, which is what I'm trying to get at with the idea of mourning as ego, it all began to feel performative—a performance of language, of class, and frankly, of proximity. It also came from a lot of people who are incredibly classed, highly educated, and have attended elite institutions. Her books saved and changed lives, people were able to anchor and ground themselves in those texts because they served as a moral compass, it's a about a deep, deep love. It's about a survival as practice—surviving and then living. It's about mapping oneself through the experiences of others who you can reach through them telling their own story.
You started out by talking about mapping Emmanuel, and that makes me think of Ricky's contribution on architecture, on reimagining spaces where we fail to see it. And for whatever reason, this is bringing a memory back. My mother once told me about her arriving in the US for the first time. She went to college in Kansas, so her first time seeing snow was in the late 70s. And there was a small Black community on her Presbyterian college campus. And so she has really funny memories of becoming part of the Black community in her college campus days. Her first exposure or bringing herself into understanding herself as Black in the context of the US, came in the middle of Kansas, right? And this is not often the architecture that we think of, or the mapping that we think of when we think of what it means to arrive in the US or to become recognizable as Black or Other in a new context, right?
So, my mother became Black in Kansas in the middle of the snow with her college roommate, Debbie. We've been to Ms. Debbie's house for Thanksgiving. So my mother's coming from Panama, from her Caribbean background and meeting a Black Southern woman for the first time who was about some pranks. And so they're running around. They might get in trouble because it's the White establishment administration, etc. But that map then becomes a way for me to find my own Blackness in the context of being and becoming a first generation African American, right? So, it's not the Great Migration story, but it is a map, it is a kind of built space. If you have any imaginary around what it means to arrive as a Black immigrant in the 1970s, in the middle, the late part of the 20th century, that is not a story that gets told very often. But then, suddenly, I have a way to imagine myself as being part of a lineage or a structure or some apparatus under which, or through which, I can negotiate my own my own gaze. I need to figure it out, but it has something to do with understanding myself from the apparatus or through that situation: my mother's college roommate from the South meets her in Kansas, influences how she understands Blackness and then we end up—by way of corporate capitalism—moving with my mother's company, to the post-white flight suburban South. And so that's my moment of recognition of a Southern Blackness, right? And I am so grateful. Thank you corporate America for sending my family to the South. Because now I get to understand a multitude of trajectories, situations, and ongoing apparatus that are at work in order to understand myself. It sounds like fiction, right? It sounds made up. Given the strength of the stories that I/we are meant to be encapsulated by and held captive to, I'm appreciative of Ricky for how he brought back to mind the ways in which I'm not supposed to see that architecture of my own selfhood. It's a different story than the one I'm supposed to attach to what people may see when they see me, right?
Darla, your mother’s story of arriving in the American South as a minor story of becoming Black is beautiful. It makes me think of how minority isn’t just a demographic attribute. The minor takes place even at the discursive formation of the very minoritarian identity we inhabit, right? It is not simply just that “we” occupy a smaller racial or ethnographic share of the pie as portrayed by the census and the dominant narrative of the minority. The very identitarian formation of different races and ethnicities in American society, or any society really, is a regime of storytelling that seeks to administer differences. Your mother’s story, Darla, and perhaps all our stories when taken at such a specific level, would fail to be accounted for what Parissah was elaborating as the fiction of migration that the American story constantly manufactures. Instead, it is the nonfiction, the material history of the diasporic movements that weave America into a society of manifold differences. It is this specificity that the great story of American mobility erases. How, by holding onto the specificity of our own stories, and not the story of the other but other stories, do we regain a kind of intimacy while mourning the loss of bell hooks? That seems to be the question that I am trying to answer here. It is at the core of overcoming the citational economy of commemorating, no? The mourning becomes transactional as soon as the specificity of our difference is absent.
What's your relationship to assimilation in terms of coming to America and becoming legible to yourself through the study of Blackness?
It is not so much a question of assimilation than that of exposure when it comes to my relationship with Blackness. For myself, Blackness does not represent an object of assimilation, or an aspirational entity made available to be consumed. It is rather a radical philosophical stance, a position that I can only sojourn via a process of constant learning and dissimilating. Blackness teaches me about nonalignment. I use the term exposure in reference to bell hooks' usage in “Talking Back.” The fear of exposure is for hooks the obstacle for the disenfranchised and oppressed to negotiate political space. It is for me a similar conservative motive that is held against Black radical thinking in America’s fiction of migration.
Being specific involves undoing constructs that come along with migration. The dubious category of “international student” has a pull in me. It is a happy rhetorical consensus between a reformist China that desperately globalizes itself and a multicultural America as a society of assimilation. It eliminates locales and histories, things that bell hooks tirelessly traces. I constantly find myself struggling with the constructedness of this identity package. My specificity comes to be when I begin forging linkage among critical histories and lineages between the two different contexts across the Pacific Ocean, for instance, when I learned about the Black Power movement’s connection with the Third World Liberation Front and the Bandung Conference, in particular.
I didn't even learn about the Bandung Conference until four years ago, in Berlin, at the “Freedom in the Bush of Ghosts/ Parapolitics” conference [in a talk by Kodwo Eshun: “‘The Colony is a Prison:’ Richard Wright’s Political Diagnostics on the ‘Redemption of Africa’ in the Gold Coast”]. I was so struck; I thought, “How come I didn’t know about this radical movement?” I mean, it's there for me to learn about, but it wasn't part of my education. Even the education that would've been the secret education of reading bell hooks, right? The deviations are the places where I'm finding the most pleasure, the most promise. The places where it shouldn't have been the case, except it really was. So, the places where I get to join the Great Migration, for example, or reverse migration—how do I link up my stories with the stories that are supposedly the ones that have yet to be told, and that need to be told?
I am really interested in this idea that everyone's been also bringing up too about the...how'd you put it Emmanuel, the ego of mourning, right? Or the ego of...
Yeah, the ego of mourning.
Yeah. And it seems to be really connected to the question of citation, which I think we're all circling around in different ways. Both Lyle and Emmanuel were talking about the amazing intention and care that bell hooks put into her citations and making sure we know the names—making sure we recognize that there's a lineage being activated in her writing. Citation is an act of reverence in that context, an act of making visible. And then there's the other edge of that.
One of my mentors, the late queer theorist Jose Esteban Munoz, who was my PhD advisor, used to say something that I really love, which was that "The closest thing [he] did to a sport was pick over the bones of old dead white men." This is such a great way of understanding the way that citation can be weaponized to read against the grain of the canons that exclude the possibility of you as a reader. It's a form of citation that gives you a way to insist on the value of your own thought.
So, citation can be this act of reverence, this act of resistance, it runs the whole gambit. And in a lot of ways, identification is like that too—who we identify as our forebears and how we understand ourselves and where we come from can be mobilized in different ways to do different things. Perhaps that's why we're talking about fiction. Fiction is a lot simpler in some ways than the reality and complexity of who we are moment to moment, year to year. It's relational: the story of our lives can always be told differently and feel more true or untrue depending on the context in which we are telling it—even when it's all true. There are things, contexts, or people that turn us into fictions, regardless of what we say. Citation can be a way of demanding a certain legibility—and I think mourning can do that too, especially the spectacle of mourning in public. This conversation has got me thinking about who is able to mourn whom in public, and how we claim connections to the people who have made our lives and thinking possible. And I'm actually again reminded of something Jose once told me. The way PhDs tend to work, as I'm sure you all know, is that the advisor picks who they want to work with and advise. And I remember being in a moment of crisis once and asking Jose, "Why me? Why am I the one you want to work with? I'm not really writing about the things you are necessarily interested in, so why me?" And his answer, which really meant a lot to me, was, "Well, I chose you because we both would've been burned at the stake." That's one way of thinking about how we find these affinities that don't necessarily find expression or good clean articulation in the lines of identity and lineage that otherwise bind us—but are nonetheless very palpably felt. And I think that's what's always really hard when we're trying to memorialize someone, or figure out together how to mourn in public.
It's really powerful hearing that. I'm trying to understand what’s meant by "the ego of mourning.” Are there other ways that we could point to, other modalities or other manifestations of a form of memorialization? Even thinking about John Akomfrah’s work in relation to Stuart Hall—I'm thinking about how we are able to memorialize through the act of creation. I’m also thinking about my relationship to Marlon Riggs and Essex Hemphill. And Essex telling me, when I had fear in producing work, that it’s about earning one's warrior marks. Or when Marlon was in his hospital bed, Alice Walker came to visit and rubbed his feet. At his memorial she even said that what we can do when we care for someone is to rub their feet and to witness, to be present with them. It's a question that I’m facing in myself: How do we deal with the biggest death event of our lifetimes and the personal aspects of that collective death? I’ve been thinking about that at this historical moment. Maybe I don't understand what’s meant by “the ego of mourning.” I do think there's a level of exhibitionism around everyone liking or posting online, but how do we actually take a much more generative or gentle way, or even push if you will, to ask what lies behind that? Having lived in Ghana for seven years, seeing public death announcements and the relationship to the funerary there, it's almost as if social media is more akin to the public announcements of death that you can actually see on any given street corner in Ghana. So I bring an understanding of it from that perspective—the fact that there is this inconsolable loss—how do we deal with it through our practice? That's why I was arguing against the transactional—the fact that we can post and “like” et cetera—but where does that take us when we come back home, to our work and our process? For me it's less transactional; for me it involves deep thought and a deep archival excavation of what might be possible. I don't think it's necessarily about the ego, but it’s about how can one go back and resuscitate and in an imaginary sense create or give flesh to what might not have been formed. Those are things that I'm interested in right now—how are we fortifying ourselves beyond the merely transactional?
Lyle, when you were questioning what lies beneath the transactional, exhibitory economy of mourning, it occurred to me that hooks’s works offer a space that accommodates multiple passages of experiences. Behind this claim is that differences should not just be understood as static identitarian categories, no matter how variegated they might be, but rather they are trajectories in motion that intersect with each other. hooks’s writing attracts, invites, and accommodates these trajectories of differences. It is the multiplicity of origins, routes, and arrivals that complicate our effort of memorialization. The mourning of hooks is multiple, coming from manifold directions and with varying intensities.
I've been thinking about this a lot in terms of who's able to give voice to reason. Who's able to be an authority on the subject matter at these respective institutions and be a representative of a cause or body of people? Who's able to control the conversation? I've been thinking about death since the onset of COVID, specifically thinking about the aesthetics of death, the residue of death, and then these elders dying. And with mourning, what makes me think of ego, or frame it as "mourning as ego," because it's not grounded in a physical, tangible, tactile experience where there's something at stake for the person. It's frustrating because for me it reads more as a attempt at anointing oneself through the alleged process of grieving. If that moment was so pivotal for you, it should be something that you can carry with yourself and not be something that you need to project onto other people in order to have that love be refracted and reflected back to you.
I just have to say, I'm not sure my mourning has even started yet. I had a lot of work going on, and I have a lot to do in life. I'm not sure where my mourning starts, or if it has started for bell hooks yet, but I felt an urgency to testify because she helped me to articulate why I need not be embarrassed by my intellectual life and to embrace the idea of becoming philosopher. So, for me, in the social media post that I made it was... well, I have mixed feelings. I'm hearing what you're saying, Emmanuel. The “commodification of inclusivity” is what my recent term for it is. Right? So, everybody wants a little bite when there's a bite to be bitten. Right? And that's what it is. That's just what it is.
Yes, 100%. It's problem of capital, demand, and desire.
How can we be compassionate around that, as opposed to somehow knocking those people. How can we have compassion for ourselves, for the urge to engage in that while at the same time maintaining a certain distance?
I want to just touch really quickly on this. I know that social media is always a question, and I don't think we're anywhere near solving it. But I keep coming back to her question of the insertion of a place, and specifically a Black feminist space in cinema. So for me, it does make sense for Black women and Black folks to want to have a public space in mourning. If we're framing social media as in the realm and in the family of cinema and maybe as a participatory cinema, and as a framework of multidirectional gazing, this is a place where people are saying, "No, the writing of this story and of mourning needs to be participated in by the people who were raised by her writing and who shaped her writing." I think that is something that I can hold a lot of space for.
Everybody is always in a constant state of grappling. Theory is always in relation to practice. When it is being used aptly, for lack of a better word, theory is constantly reconstituting around practice and practice is constantly reconstituting around theory. In All About Love, she talks the necessity for collective grief. That there's been a neoliberalization in the west of grief, as being something that needs to be private, that you need to move on, that you need to release a person in order to find fulfillment and in order to move on with your life. She argues that mourning and grief is a way of acknowledging that you have love. And that to hold and honor that love, you need to acknowledge that the person is no longer on the same plane as you and find some collectivity and some intimacy with those who are still around you. And that needs to be a collective process, otherwise it just turns into something else.
And so, I can feel and hold space for the urgency when we are lacking, especially, in physical touch and physical spaces of gathering. I come from two cultures that are deeply informed by physical practices of mourning. There are deeply intimate collectivized practices of grieving, which are cut off right now for a public necessity. And so, in lacking that, what do we have? We have the mediated hyper surveilled, super curated platform of social media, which with all its imperfections, at least, has the figment of autonomy and of self-authorship. For all its failures, it gives us a moment where we say, "I can tell someone that I am grieving, and I can maybe be witnessed in my pain in that moment from somebody who might be sharing it." That is something that I can take a piece of and hold solace in.
I can find patterning, referring to Emmanuel. I desire both the demolition of structure, but also new formations. I like seeing the constellations of people identifying which versions of mourning feel intimate and finding signals into the dark saying, "Is somebody out there?” This person, this giant star in my life, has just turned into a black hole that is sucking everything else into it. And I cannot help but feel guilty and greedy because all I want to do is sink into myself, but I need to keep moving and to try and signal into the world that maybe somebody else is there with me to reach out in the darkness. That's something that bell hooks invited me to do. She invited me to relish in that feeling, invited me to say that grief, greed, relishing, and ego are participation in life, and participation in the continuity of intimacy. We have to be critical and we have to kind of constantly re-articulate ourselves because there are people stealing our language and our tools and using them against us. But when we have criticality and when we have true intimacy, having a proliferation of voices only gives us more things to work with.
“When living honorably is more important than staying alive, you’re ready to fight effectively for what you believe in.”