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Rizvana Bradley

in conversation with Jennifer Krasinski

Rizvana Bradley is faculty of Film and Media Studies, and affiliated faculty in the History of Art and the Center for Race and Gender, at the University of California, Berkeley. She is also the 2023–24 Terra Foundation Visiting Professor at the John F. Kennedy Institute for North American Studies at Freie Universität Berlin. Bradley’s book, Anteaesthetics: Black Aesthesis and the Critique of Form, published by Stanford University Press in 2023, traverses nineteenth-century painting, early cinema, contemporary text-based works, video installations, and digital art, demonstrating black art’s recursive deconstruction of the aesthetic forms that remain foundational to modernity. The book, which inaugurates a new method for interpretation—an ante-formalism—extends Bradley’s longstanding commitment to art criticism, which can be found in publications like The Yale Review, Artforum, e-flux, Art in America, and Parkett, as well as in numerous exhibition catalogues. Beyond her writing, Bradley is known for her work to bring scholars and artists into direct conversation, notably through her curation of academic arts symposia at venues such as the British Film Institute, the Serpentine Galleries, and the Stedelijk Museum of Art. In all of her work, Bradley pushes art criticism to move beyond familiar grammars of representation, and toward new modalities of critical attunement. This conversation, which takes up questions concerning blackness, the nature of the work of art, race and aesthetic modernity, the task of the critic, and the possibilities for and pitfalls of art writing, took place in the winter and spring of 2024.


Let's begin a bit generally with the art object as subject, and your relationship to it. Seems straightforward enough, but writing about art does have its particularities, peculiarities. Sianne Ngai (as one example) has offered the insight that, within modernity, art became understood as “a class of objects made explicitly for contemplation,” but you and I, in a recent call, commiserated about how an artwork is, at least for both of us, an occasion to think—a seemingly more muscular, extroverted action with no promise of transcendence. I am curious to know more about how you would describe the way an art object opens up, or forecloses on, the spaces of thinking and writing for you in general, but perhaps most particularly while working on Anteaesthetics.


Yes, it’s certainly true that, as Ngai and others have astutely observed, the advent of modernity ushered in both the presumption of and demand for the separation of the political and the aesthetic; the work of art came to be positioned as an object for detached contemplation by the disinterested subject, who supposedly embodies a universal human capacity for aesthetic judgement. Of course, this disinterested subject, who would contemplate the work of art from a remove, has never really existed, but that hasn’t stopped its various figurations from becoming powerful forces within the modern aesthetic imagination.

The reigning orientation to black art, however, is profoundly interested, even for the critic who refuses to call it “interesting.” (For as Ngai wryly observes, “judging something ‘interesting’—the mere act of singling it out as somehow worthy of everyone’s attention—is often the first step in actually making it so.”) The predominant stance toward black art is ‘interested’ in the sense that the work of art is forced to fulfill a very specific social function—black art is expected to be reparative, transformative, cathartic, or else to disavow any traces of a presumptively backward and parochial investment in (what is misleadingly referred to as) “identity,” in the hopes that its ostensibly more enlightened pursuit of formal innovation or abstract materiality will be recognized as such. My book, Anteaesthetics, in many respects emerged as a refusal of this interpretive impetus. But dealing with these questions of how to interpret black art in fact required me to undertake a much more expansive inquiry. This is because while the impositions and constraints to which black art is subject are singular, they’re implicated in and constitutive of a more general set of racially gendered problematics that not only span contemporary art worlds, but the modern aesthetic regime in which they are embedded.

A big part of what Anteaesthetics is drawing attention to is that this riotous irruption we call black art is doing far more than it is or can be given credit for, far more than the predominant idioms of representationalism, abstraction, or fetishized materiality can encompass. I want to refuse modes of interpretation that are ultimately aimed at putting the art object to work—not least because this requisition generally functions to recuperate the existing structuration of being, knowledge, and relationality that we can refer to in shorthand as the antiblack world. Unfortunately, this sort of demand often persists even in discourses that would celebrate the alterity or resistive potential of art. Refusing the interpretive impetus to put the black art object to work ultimately requires a critical theory of the aesthetic regime that issues this demand, and of that regime’s manifestations across various aesthetic formalisms. Moreover, while an engagement with established or emergent formalisms may prove important to glimpsing the process of their undoing, Anteaesthetics is ultimately an inquiry into that which is anterior to formalization.

Here it’s crucial to stress that, while an explicit critique of the antiblack composition of the modern aesthetic regime might well be important to specific practices of making and interpretation, there’s a danger of slipping into a rehabilitative orientation (to borrow, appropriately, from the fraudulent language of the carceral state). Part of what the blackness of black art and artistry invites us to consider—in a manner that perhaps, to riff on your phrasing, extends an opening from a foreclosure—is that no amount of pedagogy or critique is going to rectify or indemnify the violence upon which the aesthetic is founded and the violence it sustains. That is to say, the aesthetic is indissolubly bound to the racial metaphysics of the modern world and its ecocidal drive.

But to say that this violence is inescapable is not tantamount to dismissing the ulterior force of black artworks and the practices of making that subtend them. On the contrary, Anteaesthetics contends that black art and artistry are not only far more inventive than the conventions of contemporary criticism would lead us to believe, but moreover bear far more radical subversions of the world order than can be articulated in available political grammars. The unwieldy tradition of black artistry traced in Anteaesthetics at once composes and discomposes the very ground of interpretation. This is precisely why my thinking and writing stress a method of attunement that descends with the artwork, into the abyss the artwork opens and opens onto.


This leads me to ask about the origins of the anteaesthetic practice, in which experimentation and inhabitation replace, refine, and resist racially gendered intellectual traditions.


My practices of making and interpreting have been shaped by a necessary interrogation of various intellectual traditions—whether we’re talking about art history, media theory, or Continental philosophy. The point I emphasize throughout the book is that many of these methodological orientations, formalist schemas, canonizations, and genealogies both demand and displace the racially gendered conditions for their own reproduction. To clarify, in my view, there’s not a single intellectual tradition within the modern world that can be thought apart from the racially gendered production and reproduction of the order of forms. What differentiates, for example, an intellectual tradition like black feminism (to highlight one body of thought to which Anteaesthetics is deeply indebted) from a great deal of Continental philosophy, is that black feminism has been compelled and committed to the work of reflexively interrogating, and often subverting and contesting, its own racially gendered conditions of possibility and impossibility.

Returning to the first part of your question, concerning “the origins of anteaesthetic practice”: what certain traditions of black feminist thought show us is that the discourse on origins, even that which might posit the originary as unavailable or endlessly deferred, becomes even more confounding when it confronts the coerced reproductive labors of the black feminine, which have been extracted in service of the genesis, extension, and ongoing revivification of the very order of forms that would consign the black to the register of nonbeing. As Saidiya Hartman famously suggested, the real terror of partus sequitur ventrem (“the child follows the belly”) is not simply that the labors of black femininity are conscripted in the reproduction of the plantation, construed in a narrow historical sense, but rather that the black feminine is forced to become “the belly of the world.” In the book, I build on the critical theories of reproductive labor advanced by Hartman and others to consider the ways the black feminine is forced to serve as the reproductive nexus for both the plantation, broadly construed, and that which moves in flight from the plantation—a predicament I refer to as the double bind of reproduction.

Given all this, it quickly becomes apparent that the “before,” the “ante,” (which in Anteaesthetics crucially refers to that which is not only vestibular to the antiblack world—its metaphysical threshold and abyssal limit—but also that which is always already subject to the violence of that world) is an exceedingly complex designation. For while the “before” signals the forced anteriority of blackness to the racial metaphysics of the modern world, because these coerced labors emerge from an existence without ontology or phenomenology, it’s impossible to positivize this anteriority.

In sum, there are two ways one could speak to the origins of black anteaesthetic practices, which aren’t so much competing as complimentary entries into the question. The first would be to say that these practices emerge, like the black critique of ontology, in and through the cataclysm of transatlantic slavery, which poses far more difficult challenges to historical thinking than those of periodization. But the second would be to say that the anorigineity of these practices, as Fred Moten might put it, can only be recursively traced, never definitively indexed.


I am struck by how experiment allows for both the methodical and the playful, while inhabitation announces the guest status of an “I,” invited or otherwise, and proposes interiority as a kind of shelter. How did you land on these approaches?


My book is, in part, an extended meditation on the question: how do we think about those inhabitative modes opened up by a work of art that emerges from, and which bears the traces of, a black existence that lacks a proper name, an existence that the world would like to subsume under the sign of nonbeing? Rather than thinking about the inhabitation of a stable place or position, within which we might very well wish we could take shelter, I’m trying to think through negative inhabitations, inhabitations of a violent aporia, the traces of which recede from every effort to inscribe them in and as form. Blackness compels us to think about the inhabitation of an absolutely dispossessive field.

For some time I’d been thinking about how all of this is bound up with the nonlinear seriality of black experimentation, which emerges, in art and more generally, as a necessity. Experimentation, under such conditions, unfolds through modes of artistic cultivation that are not only constantly dispossessed of any stable ground upon which to stand, but which often threaten to implode the aesthetic foundations of the very forces of expropriation to which they are subject. To make this abstract notion of a necessary experimentalism a bit more concrete, let’s take your example of the status of the “I.” Now, the “I” is conventionally understood as the position from which the individuated, self-possessed subject speaks. But, as various scholars have pointed out in different ways, within the modern world blackness has been made to serve as the founding interdiction for these articulations of personhood, and of the conceptions of interiority to which they are tethered. Thus black people have never been able to stake a proprietary claim on the “I” or the subject position it is meant to index (or at least not a claim that the world would recognize as coherent and legitimate).

When artists such as Glenn Ligon, Mickalene Thomas, and Sondra Perry (whose respective works are discussed at length in the book), differentially engage the “I,” or even, in Thomas and Perry’s cases, nominally place themselves within the work, the critic needs to think carefully about the stakes and implications of such a gesture. In my view, the absent self becomes a site for experimentation, for recursively deconstructing the constitution of modernity—its racial metaphysics—in profoundly unpredictable ways.

Moving with your question, the task of the critic is not to assign these works a proper designation within a given formalist schema or historical genealogy. Nor is it to extol their diversification of an otherwise Eurocentric canon. In any case, the radical impropriety of these works renders both of these interpretive reflexes substantively untenable. The critic’s task is rather to undertake the difficult work of attuning to the exorbitance of these works, to their unbearability—to descend with their philosophical labors, even as they unsettle the very foundations of philosophical discourse. 


One of many things that struck me throughout the book was how you, thinker, broadcast multiple such attunements, offering up, and playing with, the temporalities of black experimentation as a way of bearing, and bearing with, the unbearable—and how you, writer, are called to name, and thereby delimit, other temporalities. As example, one that struck me early on was the condition you call the “always already,” which upends the order of things, denotes a future both predetermined and inevitable, while also unsnagging thought so that it can move forward.


That’s a wonderfully perceptive question! I think that, of the various iterations of the “always already” proposed in Anteaesthetics, the one your question most immediately brings to mind is this: blackness is always already the critique of form. The critique of form is immanent to blackness, and, conversely, blackness is immanent to the critique of form. And, at the very same time, blackness, through its conscripted labors and forced appearances, subtends the making and remaking of forms within the modern world. The black work of art bears this immanent critique.

Your lovely turn of phrase, “unsnagging thought,” reminds me of something Lauren Berlant might have said. Berlant spoke of “loosening” our grip upon our objects of attachment (including the work of art), to some degree in the service of thinking anew. But while Anteaesthetics works arduously to decalcify thinking on blackness, the aesthetic, and the work of art, I would stress that its project is also invested in a modality of invention whose movement is not so much forward as “disintegrative,” to borrow David Marriott’s words—an invention that radically unmoors both the spatio-temporal presuppositions and ethico-political imperatives of futurity as we know it.

With respect to black experimentations taken up by this book, the kind of loosening Berlant spoke of quite literally forces one to confront the unbearable. I’m thinking of the unbearable in numerous senses, not least of which is the mark of that which is exorbitant to the modern world—that which blackness bears but which nevertheless cannot be born, which cannot be coherently integrated into the current structures of knowledge, being, and perception. But the book also approaches this matter of bearing through a careful consideration of reproductive labor, particularly with respect to the (un)genderings of blackness, to echo Hortense Spillers. In the context of what I term the bearings of black femininity, the word “bearing” swells with multiple meanings, evoking the reproductive, that which orients (and disorients), and that which must be endured.

You noted that the language of bearing and unbearability become one way of entering into the problem of temporality, and that’s certainly true. In fact, there’s an essay of mine entitled “Too Thick Love, or Bearing the Unbearable,” recently published in The Affect Theory Reader 2: Worldings, Tensions, Futures, that tries to think about the affective dimensions of black existence by attending to the experience of time’s abyssal thickening, to an experience suffused with the (incalculable) accumulation of that which is made to come before the event and its historical order.


The model of experiment is generous in that it also allows a space for inquiry, for thought, to fizzle, boil over, or explode at any moment—and that these outcomes might be at once uncontrollable and desirable. In writerly terms, maybe we’d call it the “false false start.” I'm curious if, along the way, there were unanticipated turns that proved invaluable to your thinking, and to the book?


I appreciate your suggestion that, in order to rethink black artistic experimentations and inhabitations, this book had to itself become an experiment—perhaps exhibiting a dance of the methodical and playful, to use your words, in that its method required improvisation at the edges and recesses of numerous interpretive frames. I think you’re right to suggest that the inquiries most worth undertaking often also entail the greatest risk. In embracing those dangers, it’s crucial to understand the inevitable incompleteness of the work itself as a gift, one which I hope, in this instance, will open up space for others to extend the theory of anteaesthetics in new directions. And, yes, there were definitely numerous unexpected turns in the course of writing this book, but the ones that proved most invaluable were those prompted by the artworks themselves. You can have the most elegant theory, the most rigorous methodology, and still there’s no telling what survives or emerges through an encounter with an artwork that brings any pretense of sovereign spectatorship to ruin.


Funny, but that question of “which came first, the theory or the art” can also feel like a kind of stress test for the exorbitance (to borrow your word) of both the critic and the artist. I deeply appreciate that you see Anteaesthetics as a kind of eternal “work-in-progress,” a wellspring of possible future writing and thought. This might be a terrible question, but I ask it because at some point in the writing process, every writer experiences an estrangement with their text in which all we can see, all we can read, is what we have not written. If that was an experience you had, let’s spin it positively: is there a thread from the book you’d like someone else to pick up and write from?


No, that’s a crucial question! I think that perhaps I experience an estrangement from this book less through the specter of what has not been written than through the knowledge of what could not be written. And, conversely, through the knowledge of what demanded to be written. To paraphrase and simplify an observation from the book’s introduction, neither Anteaesthetics nor the labors that subtend it escape the violent predations and displacements they have sought to interrogate. That said, it’s also true that what has not been written, to return to your original emphasis, in many ways signals the ways in which the work of attuning to these artworks is an unfinished and unfinishable process—or, put differently, the ways in which these artworks continue to work upon me, and upon the line of inquiry Anteaesthetics tries to open. 


Do you recall a precise moment of revelation—or even a subtle revision—that came to you while in the presence of one of the works you wrote about? I ask because I know you spent a great deal of time with certain artworks . . .


Yes, there were many such moments. For instance, I’d been thinking about the concept of unworlding, which is the subject of the last chapter of the book, for a number of years, but the concept struck me with renewed intensity and differential emphasis after encountering and sitting with Sondra Perry’s recent work. Perry’s work, in its insistent theorizations of an unfinished Middle Passage, returned me to a crucial question. If the vertiginous passages of blackness underscore the untenability of approaching the concept of unworlding through existing philosophical discourses, as well as through the available grammars of political praxis or embodied agency, then what exactly was this notion of unworlding that I had felt my thinking recurrently drawn to in recent years? Her work pushed me to think more carefully about unworlding as an ulterior force that is made to come before the world but also devastates the world’s metaphysical conceits.

The chapter which testifies to and reflects upon this encounter takes up multiple works, but to mention just one, let’s take Perry’s Flesh Wall (2016–20). Utilizing ninety-two enormous digital displays in Times Square to construct a media architecture from a finely modulated image of her own skin, Flesh Wall compelled me to think unworlding through the racial genealogy of architectural forms, and, more pointedly, through architecture as a technology of worlding.

I should add that it’s been interesting to look back at this chapter while I’ve been spending the academic year in Berlin. Though Berlin certainly has its share of “neoliberal dreamworlds” (as Daniel Bertrand Monk and the late Mike Davis termed them), there’s nothing on the order of the imperial spectacle of world-space and world-time that state and capitalist agencies have sought to fabricate in Times Square (obviously at the expense of all those deemed impediments to “redevelopment”). Nevertheless, as I note in the chapter, in many ways Perry’s work problematizes the discourse of site-specificity. Flesh Wall engages with the site-specificity of Times Square (which in no small part exemplifies a neoliberal urbanism whose manifestations are profoundly unspecific) in ways that exhibit a critical interrogation of the absolutely general. To be clear, Perry’s work interrogates not only the ways that the phantasmatic skin and fleshly violation of blackness subtend and sabotage the specific monumentalities of Times Square. Flesh Wall implicates the general monumentalizing relay between subject, body, and world, and architecture as the expression and execution of that relay.

What Flesh Wall ultimately drew me toward was a consideration of the relationships between worlding, unworlding, and the unwieldy materiality that blackness bears, which architecture, as a modality of the world’s formalization, both requires and aims to expel. Perry’s work opens onto an understanding of worlding and unworlding as agonistically entwined, a coil and recoil obliquely felt as the resurfacing of flesh which is nevertheless unrepresentable.

This extended reflection on Perry’s work ultimately led me to close the book in a way I hadn’t initially anticipated, with a rereading of Ed Roberson’s extraordinary poem, “To See the Earth Before the End of the World.” In effect, the encounter with Perry’s work drew me to the question: what happens to the contested figuration of “the end of the world,” as a fraught articulation of the ecological catastrophes of the so-called Anthropocene, when its vantage confronts the unworlding that undergirds every world, the unworlding that is ceaselessly made to come before the world?


I want to ask about the practice of anteaesthetic writing—can I call it this? Maybe I’ll start my question by noting that one model “writer” in your book is Ligon, who you call a “philosopher of the threshold.” You enter his work by way of the “Door” series (1990–92), reading how it materializes language and dematerializes bodies as a way to signal (for one) black corporeality as an “(im)possibility” for representation. Since we writers are weighed down at all times by words, I wonder how you were thinking about, and possibly playing with, their materiality as you wrote the book. As example (or prompt): I note the book’s title is a word you created to name, to contain, your ideas . . .


Maybe we could say that “anteaesthetic writing,” as you’ve termed it, emerges through attunement to the threshold. Glenn Ligon is a magnificent guide in this respect, and not only because of the ways his text-based works inhabit and interrogate the threshold between the visual and the linguistic, the oral and the written, the material and the semiotic, and thereby raise a whole host of vital questions about the nature of literary forms and the dynamics of writerly practice. Even more crucial, I think, is the way that his artworks (painterly, videographic, and otherwise) recursively deconstruct the very aesthetic forms that condition their appearance—including the form that is the medium itself. The chapter in which I discuss Ligon’s work also brings his 2008 video installation, The Death of Tom, to bear on our understanding of the emergence of the cinematic medium, but staying for now with his “Door” series: studying these and his related text-based works requires unpacking the labyrinthine relationships between modernity’s graphocentrism and its racial regime of language, the complex ways that blackness is made to suture the gap within and between the linguistic sign and the graphic mark, the high modernist fetishization of surface and investment in the purity of the artistic medium, the reductions of the visual field, and the fleshly displacements that subtend the hyper(in)visibility of the dissimulated ‘black body,’ to name just a handful of crucial conceptual moments.

What these works ultimately do is disclose black art’s immanent defilement of the purities of medium and form, the purity of medium as form. Here a radical impurity emerges through Ligon’s meticulous tracing of the exorbitant materiality, the irreducible opacity, that cannot be excised from the medium, that returns as what I call the black residuum.

Insofar as we understand writing as a medium, perhaps what you’ve thoughtfully called anteaesthetic writing proceeds with a similar method—working through the palimpsest of language in an effort to return us to that which language devours and displaces, that which remains unspeakable, but nevertheless remains. No matter the form that would appear to hold it, anteaesthetic writing must be a poetics of deformation.


I want to leave off our conversation with a question about what you’re thinking about now, which I understand is a very different kind of prose project, still in progress. I wonder if at least you might share some of the thoughts and questions loosed by Anteaesthetics that are now pulling you forward?


I can close with some broad brushstrokes. The making and unmaking of forms continue to loom large in the project I’m currently working on, as do a great number of thoughts and questions that Anteaesthetics loosed but which will never really find a resting place. There are also other texts written alongside this book that continue to move my current work. In “Picturing Catastrophe: The visual politics of racial reckoning,” I tried to show how the harrowing meeting grounds of photography, the contemporary political imagination, and the racial metaphysics of presence might prompt us to consider the question of what it might mean to “reinvent what it means to see.”

But I think that, returning to your question about anteaesthetic writing, I find that the completion of this book has left me especially hungry for modes of writing less constrained by the protocols to which conventional academic writing is expected to adhere—in which the call to systematicity often masks the enclosure of thought. There are of course numerous scholars who manage to write against the grain of these sorts of impositions. To mention just one example, one of the reasons I have so much admiration for Hortense Spillers’s writing practice is that every one of her essays is an exemplar of theoretical rigor and piercing insight, but is at the same time uncontained, open and inexhaustible. Her sentences marvelously fuse razor-sharp rhetoric and semiotic overspill. So, I suppose that’s the sort of form I want my current project to yield to: a text that uncontains itself.