Symposium Introduction

Realist Ecstasy: Religion, Race, and Performance in American Literature, Lindsay V. Reckson’s sweeping account of the bodily and affective repertoire of enthusiasm, ecstasy, (dis)possession, and inspiration that both constitutes and fractures realism’s representational terrain, gestures out.

This is not surprising given the crucial role that gesture, as analytic and practice, plays in the project. As she summons an expansive cast—which ranges from W. E. B Du Bois to Stephen Crane to Nella Larsen, among others—and coordinates an equally capacious archive—one that includes writing by Anna Julia Cooper, James Mooney’s photographic, filmic, and sonic experiments within the nascent field of ethnography, and embodied movement—Reckson excavates what she describes as the “gestural and performative idioms of religious ecstasy” that, together, (re)work realism. These practices take shape in syntactical structures, choreographed rituals, literary genres, and modern technologies, populating what she describes as the “dramas of realist ecstasy” (2). Whether it be the comportment of indigenous dancers who invite us to see realism as reenactment or “the turn of the century’s promiscuous forms of button pressing” that she attends to in her study of the camera and the electric chair, the gestures that Reckson constellates loosen realism’s regulatory workings and illuminate its constitutive contradictions (186).

After all, as Reckson reminds us in the earliest chapters of the book, realism’s representational wheelhouse was in large part animated by a voracious desire to compel everything and everybody to legibility in the name of social management, regulation, and the utter will to order the seemingly disordered modern landscape. Across each chapter, Reckson shows how every effort attempt to classify, quantify, and capture is shadowed by the “strange” chaos that it sought to identify and contain. Importantly, and critical to Realist Ecstasy’s charge, this “strange” terrain is deeply racialized. Indeed, one of Realist Ecstasy’s key interventions is the notion of Jim Crow secularism, the affective terrain that in its attempts to protect and consolidate whiteness violently disavows the excessive, the erratic, the errant, and the wayward as the provenance of the racial “other.” In other words, “realism is everywhere haunted by the frenzy it tries to contain and forget,” a haunting that throws a wrench into secularism’s myths of historical progression and linear time (234). Rather than naturalizing a secular view of history in which the past is distinct from the present, or shoring up racialized boundaries, Realist Ecstasy hunts down the specters that realism depends upon. In so doing, realism is exposed as a project that is as always already aligned with the what she describes as the “frenzied bodily semiotics of Jim Crow,” a domain of deep feeling that sought to govern the racialized terms of bodily transcendence (234).

If gesture in Realist Ecstasy is part of a choreographic repertoire that exposes realism as iterative and performative, then gesture also emerges as the book’s organizing principle and methodology. That is, if gesture is a signal term and practice within Realist Ecstasy, then it also helps us to think through the way in which the book itself is deeply collaborative, richly citational, and endlessly generous. This is what Lindsay Reckson, in her response to Elizabeth Freeman, elaborates as a methodological imperative that “insists upon collective praxis and refuses the colonial order of disciplines.” As it cracks apart and disassembles the fictions that realism depends upon, this book extends many invitations, encouraging us readers and fellow critics to think beside her as we also (re)consider the archive of realism that we think we know so well. Reckson names this methodological orientation “besideness,” a key term that allows her to summon a cross section of scholars, fields, and disciplines. Besideness, she also notes, cuts across the fictions of progress and autonomy that were central to the turn of the century’s regulatory logic, but also the modern academy. What I am trying to point out here, and what the generous and brilliant contributors to this forum are responding to, is the way that Realist Ecstasy enacts and encourages the alternate modes of being together that each chapter calls forth. The five essays in this symposium are a testament to the critical work that Realist Ecstasy’s gestural terrain activates, whether signaled by a citation, a quiet textual hail that takes shape as an open question, or a nod to some future provocation that hasn’t been announced.

The first essay, by Elizabeth Freeman, begins by registering the productive overlaps between her recent book Beside You in Time and Realist Ecstasy. As Freeman notes, that she and Reckson were unknowingly writing “beside” each other is a function of the contrapuntal time that is written into realism’s archive, a time that queer studies and performance studies work to unearth. Freeman’s essay draws out the interplay between what she describes as “forms of relationality” and the “genres of relationality” that Reckson attends to, genres like theater but also photography and realism itself, as she tracks the stakes of Realist Ecstasy for queer studies, a field that she notes has often had a difficult time sitting beside religious discourse. For Ashon Crawley, thinking with Realist Ecstasy returns him to foundational writers—from Fred Moten to Ida B. Wells—as he considers how “being moved,” or more precisely the renunciation of shared collectivity, is at the heart of the myth of the self-possessed (white) liberal subject.

In “To Read Beside: Of Ecstasy, of Encounter,” Kelina Gotman takes hold of Realist Ecstasy’s invitation and begins to imagine and reconstruct the chorus of interlocutors who create the score for Reckson’s work, the texts and archives that she carries with her. Gotman stages and in many cases pursues the series of invitations that Reckson offers. The stakes of what she describes as the book’s “contrapuntal moments” are “a way of working away from explanation, extraction, and towards the rhythmic sway of observations.” It is precisely in this spirit that Allison Curseen attends to what she describes as the “energetic materiality that attends ecstatic black bodies.” As she visits texts that Reckson takes up, from Nella Larsen’s Quicksand to W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Coming of John, Curseen explores the “frequency with which the rolling refusals, social communions, queer reunions and otherwise collectivities held open in realist ecstasy is meditated by material and metaphorical invocations to the queerly seductive and dangerously powerful elements of nature.” Finally, as she unspools the ways that Realist Ecstasy gestures toward Black feminist practice, Erica Edwards considers how Black feminist performance also registers the cracks in the “secular fallacy” that is at the heart of American realism. Edwards receives Reckson’s invitation and extends it into the twentieth century, illuminating how what she describes as Black feminism’s “antic forms” are also always already emerging in deep grooves where (as Reckson puts it) “ecstasy abuts terror” (234). That Realist Ecstasy, a book whose center of gravity is the turn of the twentieth century, moves well into the late twentieth century speaks to the kinds of historic recurrence and haunting that Reckson argues are at work in realism and which Edwards show are constitutive of an “antic” glitch that interrupts secular progressive time and conditions Black feminist productions that remain intransigent to realism’s arrest.

Each contributor to this symposium takes up at least one of the archival, theoretical, conceptual, or textual gestures that Reckson offers. Together they “linger,” “tarry with,” think “beside,” and engage in the deeply collaborative project that Realist Ecstasy’s gestures invite us into.


Beside Realist Ecstasy

I had no idea that as I was writing Beside You in Time, Lindsay Reckson was beside me in time, writing Realist Ecstasy. We were both thinking about the racializing effects of being out of step with the regular bodily comportment of Anglo-Protestantism; I was exploring representations of Shaker dance and Reckson representations of Afro-Protestant and Indigenous ecstatic religious activities. We were both thinking about playing dead; I was writing about this in folk tales and ex-slave narratives and Reckson about it in late nineteenth-century reenactments of the Ghost Dance. We were both thinking about how blackness sometimes gets cast as supernatural in African American literature to disrupt secularist common sense; I was reading Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins’s Of One Blood and Reckson Nella Larsen’s Quicksand. I really wish I had written Realist Ecstasy myself, or at least found the articles that preceded it to clarify my own thinking, but never mind. I’m just glad it is in the world: there are books about secularism and books about Black religion, but this book is unusual in its rigorous commitment to demonstrating how secularism takes shape as whiteness in reactive relation to specifically BIPOC religious expressivity, or to religious expressivity imagined as a form of savagery most often indexed to blackness.

What I think Reckson and I have most deeply in common is a commitment to what she calls “queer and ecstatic relationality as critical method” (20), and I’d like to describe how that method works in Realist Ecstasy. First, it shapes Reckson’s approach to the archive: as a scholar, she works by juxtaposition, producing new and beautiful interconnections between material heretofore understood separately. For example, in the tradition of cultural studies in literature and with admirable archival depth, she reads American realist novels (W. D. Howells, Frances Harper, Stephen Crane, James Weldon Johnson, and Nella Larsen) alongside sociology (W. E. B. Du Bois and Anna Julia Cooper), photography (James Mooney’s representations of the Ghost Dance and William van der Weyde’s prints of the electric chair at Sing Sing), sheet music (minstrelsy), and performance (the Ghost Dance). More broadly, she connects entire genres to one another, reading realism as a kind of bodily performance and disposition, photography as gesture, and secularism and religion as not only ideologies but also intertwined “historical concepts in motion” (14). By focusing on bodily activity, her analysis restores connections between domains of inquiry and representation that are sometimes lost in more discipline-bound studies.

While I’ve always been interested in the forms of relationality, seeing symbols and syntax, gestures and rhythms as connective tissue between human beings, Reckson has a deep investment in what we might call the genres of relationality, which I find terrifically exciting (I’ll confess that Realist Ecstasy was one of those works that made me have to get up every now and then and pace around the room with excitement, an activity the book itself understands deeply). Of course, theater and performance, which comprise some of Reckson’s archive, have always been understood as genres of relationality. But photography becomes one, too—or perhaps a genre of anti-relationality—in her elegant analysis of how the touch of a button connects electricity to Black death in both photography and state executions. And most surprisingly, American literary realism itself becomes one of these genres of relationality. Reckson takes seriously the late great Amy Kaplan’s 1988 analysis of American literary realism as not only an examination of sociability but also a social force in and of itself, one that stratifies Americans according to class, race, and gender. In American literary studies, though, the dependence of that sociability on ecstatic forms of embodiment and performance (17)—the racialized “religious” both as foil and as a disavowed site in which collectivity gets produced—had yet to be excavated in the way Realist Ecstasy does. In short, realism makes relations, but in the key of frenzied worship and not only of the cool deliberation its narrators and authors often celebrate. Finally, in Reckson’s hands, American literary realism makes racial relations, as it is sometimes the symptom of, sometimes the diagnostic tool for, the white supremacy that undergirds secularism itself, or of what she calls “Jim Crow secularism” (2). Within the imaginative texts and performances that Reckson engages, that is, queer/ecstatic relationality is a mode of white projection and vicariousness, and therefore of containment. Ecstasy, generally embodied by Black and Indigenous characters and performers, is secularism’s uncanny double, a site for the recirculation of colonial and racial fantasies” (162).

But this is not to say that queer and ecstatic relationality are only the nefarious constructions of white supremacy. What’s most generative to me about Realist Ecstasy is the way that Reckson uses the work of José Esteban Muñoz (2009) and other queer theorists to explore ecstatic religious expression as a deconstructive disruption of subjectivity, one in which disavowed pasts as well as structural contradictions appear and contest the smooth surfaces of the present, while also creating new forms of being-together. Reckson’s reading of American literary realism as a form of hauntology is very much in keeping with scholarship that recognizes the Gothic energies at the center of the genre, such as Elbert and Ryden’s 2017 collection Haunting Realities. It also takes place within the context of work on post-post-secularity by such scholars as Talal Asad, Peter Coviello, Saba Mahmood, John Modern, Jasbir Puar, and others—scholarship that comments critically on and deconstructs the idea that a wave of religion has somehow threateningly overtaken a salutary modernity. Furthermore, Reckson’s concept of “besideness” feels to me most germane to contemporary queer theory: Realist Ecstasy understands subjectivity as fundamentally ex-tensive, and the self as constituted socially. This is slightly different than, or an addition to, the Lacanian concept of the subject as constituted by what it is not, because Reckson sees the self as not only displaced but also diffused, and as constituted by “patterned expressions” (99) transmitted from body to body. In her analysis, religious enthusiasm, which is understood as communicating and reproducing sensations, ideas, and events across time and space, condenses the threatening/thrilling possibility that being is collective, and that plural activity can engender being-otherwise.

This means that religious ecstasy, so often cast as queer white modernity’s indigestible or consumable other, is on a continuum with, and even sometimes coextensive with rather than antithetical to, queer collective becoming, from the dance floor to the demonstration. The spaces sometimes cast as inimical to queer life, like the church or the mosque, are actually (and perhaps uncomfortably to white liberal Protestant queers) very much like queer traditions such as camp and drag in their emphasis on the body as an instrument for engroupment, archival preservation, and memory-work. Where queer politics repudiates or eschews religious expression, then, it may be at its very most white-liberal.

Thus for queer studies, a traditionally secular-humanist field for which religion has often felt like the enemy, the stakes of Reckson’s analysis are high. Queer theorists, historians, empirical researchers, and activists must continue to take religion seriously as a form of knowledge, social reproduction, and communality—continue, that is, in the legacy of Realist Ecstasy and of work by Ashon Crawley, Geeta Patel, Ann Pellegrini and Janet Jakobsen, Joseph Marchal, Michael Warner, and many others. We must continue to clarify the ways that queer sociability can feel and function in similar or even overlapping ways with religious ritual, making room for those who are seriously invested in organized worship to tune its energies toward antihomophobic and queer-affirmative transformations, and for queer social horizons to tune their energies toward the mysterious, the sacramental, the faithful, the divine, and other seemingly non-modern modes of being and becoming. We must also reckon with the ways that collective ecstatic expression is racialized precisely to the extent that it cannot be recaptured for profit: queer traditions notwithstanding, a disco is not a storefront church, and queer discourse has been much more prone to celebrate the former than the latter.

These clarifications and reckonings may be especially important in the American context, with its long history of stigmatizing (including, under slavery, outright banning) Black and Indigenous worship, on the one hand, and its disavowed legal and political structuration by white Protestantism on the other. I’m remembering, for example, the way that LGBTQ pundits such as Andrew Sullivan blamed Black churchgoers, especially evangelicals, for the passage of Proposition 8, which overturned the legality of gay marriage in California—as if elderly white Protestant churchgoers did not make up the majority of voters. I’m also struck by the discord between (1) the way liberal recountings of the Civil Rights Movement tend to distortingly praise a certain respectable African American Protestant comportment among leaders such as Martin Luther King; (2) the way the contemporary white queer left often espouses an atheism and agnosticism that they do not see as in conflict with the Black Lives Matter movement that they also embrace; and (3) the way Black Lives Matter itself draws from not only the Black church tradition but also Ifá-based expressive rituals of drumming, chanting, and summoning deities; Quaker practices; and Indigenous-based alternative healing techniques (on the latter, see Farrag 2018). Not the least of Reckson’s accomplishments in Realist Ecstasy is its reminder that for many Black and Indigenous Americans, spiritual expressivity and social justice work have never been opposed. Ecstatic worship is queer, if by queer we mean committed with the whole body to a racial justice and political sovereignty that intersects with but is not superseded by justice along other axes (including the sexual), to collective well-being, and to the social forms that can realize these ideals.


Works Cited:

Elbert, Monika, and Wendy Ryden. Haunting Realities: Naturalist Gothic and American Realism. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2017.

Farrag, Hebah. “The Spirit in Black Lives Matter: New Spiritual Community in Black Radical Organizing.” Transition 125 (2018) 76–88.

Kaplan, Amy. The Social Construction of American Realism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.

Muñoz, José Estaban. Cruising Utopia. New York: New York University Press, 2009.

  • Lindsay Reckson


    Contrapuntal: Beside

    In the normative time of academic publishing, Beside You in Time and Realist Ecstasy ostensibly missed each other; they were roughly in press at the same moment (Freeman’s book was published while mine was in production). Even so, I look at the pages of Realist Ecstasy with regret that I do not cite Beside You in Time on every one of them, for none of my thinking is possible without it (and without Freeman’s broader project of articulating chrononormativity, erotohistoriography, and the embodied tempos of queer world-building). More generously (to me!), we might say these books were (and are) loosely contrapuntal, unfolding beside one another across the kind of time that doesn’t take shape as institutionally recognizable units: “the embodiment of a relationality that does not always refer to or result in a stable social form but instead moves, with and against, dominant timings and times.”1The movement of my thinking is indebted to Freeman’s in ways my book sometimes registers, and sometimes fails to register. But writing, too, is a way of being beside, a circuit of “mutual attunement and resonance”—even where that resonance goes unmarked.2 Queer theory taught me this.

    Ecstasy is a sense-method, as Beside You in Time so beautifully demonstrates—maybe less of way of being beside than a form of doing beside, though Freeman insistently shifts our hermeneutics from the spatial to the temporal (a move I find helpful as a scholar of the post-Reconstruction era, during which attempts to impede black progress and the fixation on white reproductive futurity were as crucial as the adjudication of segregated space). I argue in Realist Ecstasy that ecstasy and terror were the twinned—and often mutually constitutive—affective registers of Jim Crow secularism, a regime that violently governed the racialized terms of bodily transcendence and transgression. But Freeman also calls us to witness secularism as a “temporal regime,” one that organizes individual and collective bodies according to the carefully syncopated rhythms of accumulation and reproduction.3 Under secularism, ecstasy marks a form—maybe the ur-form—of what Freeman calls queer hypersociability, a way of making and remaking belonging against the terms of capitalist optimization and its racializing temporal order. That secular progress narratives dependent on heteroreproductive futurity have historically aligned with the white supremacist construction of black and indigenous spiritual practices as primitive (i.e., not able to be instrumentalized toward capital’s seamless reproduction) only underlines the importance of Freeman’s call for “queer social horizons to tune their energies toward the mysterious, the sacramental, the faithful, the divine, and other seemingly non-modern modes of being and becoming.”

    Being beside, as my book explores, is both constitutive of being (a fundamental and antenormative relationality which Ashon Crawley’s piece here helps me to unfold) and, importantly, a method of reading and thinking that refuses disciplinary propriety, moving across and between the secular orders of academic discourse. This is a method I learned from black feminist critics like Hortense Spillers, Saidiya Hartman, and M. Jacqui Alexander, who articulate the radically insurgent force of the sacred, as well as from queer theorists like Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and José Esteban Muñoz, for whom ecstatic besideness opens a spatial and temporal horizon of queer possibility. For Muñoz in particular, “Queerness’s time is the time of ecstasy. Ecstasy is queerness’s way.”4 The chiastic insight here—its refusal of straight time at the very level of syntax—runs through me and my book on repeat. And it deeply informs my methodology, which works (as Freeman notes) through archival association and historical juxtaposition, rendering realism (I hope) more recursive, wayward, and haunted than we have previously been able to mark. But perhaps more fundamentally, being beside is a mode of critical relationality—a method that insists on collective praxis and refuses the colonial order of disciplines that, as Katherine McKittrick argues, has consistently suppressed or misread black radical forms of knowledge-and-world making.5

    What binds Realist Ecstasy and Beside You in Time (across the fields of queer theory, performance studies, black studies, literary and cultural studies, and more) is a shared interest in the queerness of ritual practice and in the possibilities for cross-temporal togetherness enacted through collectively embodied gestures. As Freeman and I contend together, such gestures are not merely repetitive movements, “evidence” to the Western episteme of backwards attachment, stuckness in time, primitive feeling. They are instead “performances of restoration,” where what is restored are forms of world building obscured or pathologized by Jim Crow secularism and its relentless progress narratives.6 Reading the queerness of collective ritual (the laying on of hands in Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood, the falling out of storefront church goers in Nella Larsen’s Quicksand), we find queer social worlds that resist the temporal and sexual regimes of racial capitalism. We find antenormative bodies—bodies emerging not through (or not only through) Foucaultian subjection and atomization, but inhabiting a distributed life or aliveness in the face of biopolitical governance. Making a way out of no way. Enacting an ecstatic otherwise.7 Being beside. And doing so in ways that call many of us (including me) to account for what our own secular comportments may have missed.

    1. Elizabeth Freeman, Beside You in Time: Sense Methods and Queer Sociability in the American Nineteenth Century (Durham: Duke University Press, 2019), 12.

    2. Freeman, Beside You in Time, 16.

    3. Freeman, Beside You in Time, 31.

    4. José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (New York: New York University Press, 2009), 186.

    5. See Katherine McKittrick, Dear Science and Other Stories (Durham: Duke University Press, 2021).

    6. In their volume Race and Performance After Repetition, Soyica Diggs Colbert, Douglas A. Jones, and Shane Vogel argue that if performance is a form of citational or “restored behavior,” it is also a method of “behaved restoration.” Colbert et al., eds., introduction to Race and Performance After Repetition (Durham: Duke University Press, 2020), 5.

    7. On the blackpentecostal enactment of otherwise possibilities, see Ashon Crawley, Blackpentecostal Breath: The Aesthetics of Possibility (New York: Fordham University Press, 2017), 2.


Blackecstatic Breath

Perhaps being moved is the concept around which Western modes of philosophical inquiry, theological elaboration, and sociological imagination have cohered. Whether discussions of seventeenth-century possessions of land and one’s own person, or the choreography of writing against enslavement while investing in the Royal Africa Company; whether eighteenth-century discussions of enlightenment being man’s escape from “self incurred minority,” or poetic phrases about being forcibly brought from Africa to America; whether nineteenth-century religious enthusiasm being discussed as a kind of contagion, or emancipation as the possibility for wild miscegenation; whether twentieth-century imaginings of life beyond the veil from which emerges double consciousness, or discoveries of quantum realm mechanics in which behaviors can be simultaneously waves and particles; whether the using of electric currents for the practice of capital punishment and death, or the pushing of buttons on Kodak handhelds, being moved is a problem for thought.

Our now ongoing racial regime—the production of a hierarchy of difference that targets flesh and its behaviors of color, texture, smell; that targets behaviors of motor skill, gesture, and posture; a hierarchy of difference that is itself immovable though its component parts are always moving within it—might be considered in its fullness to be a question of and questing about being moved. Western, modern, modalities of thought and behavior took up the problem of, the question of and questing about, being moved as an occasion to produce—through performance—racialization.

How does it feel to be a problem, modulated, how does it feel to be on the move? And the underside to that modulation, I do not want to be moved.

Considering the problem that being moved poses is at the heart of Lindsay Reckson’s Realist Ecstasy: Religion, Race, and Performance in American Literature and her working through the concepts of enthusiasm, ecstasy, secularism and religion lets me, in a different but connected way, have another occasion to articulate the problem of our current, ongoing, since-1492 long historical moment, the problem of being moved, and too, the desire for stillness against being moved. And then, too and also, the racialization of stillness as whiteness and the racialization of coerced movement as nonwhite, as indigeneity, as blackness. It’s not that some of us move and others don’t, it’s that there is the presumption that stillness against movement is possible, and the violence that attends that presumption.

If ecstasy is a problem, it’s because it does not remain with the one being beside oneself, but has the capacity to catch, to move, to move others towards their own outpouring, to move others toward their own movement. Ecstasy, as Reckson reminds readers, “is not proper to the individual: it happens within and between bodies, in the moving circuit of their relation, and hence its challenge to propriety and the proprietary subject” (229). This was true in Du Bois’s frenzy. This was true, too, in Helga Crane’s wet descent into the enthusiastic church. The ones moved by spirit and joy and the holy move others. And it is the fear of this being moved, an existential dread and terror that emerges from the desire to remain stilled against another’s sway, emerges through renunciation.

The problem of being moved is a directional problem, is and is about a kind of existential despair and longing and desire that has been made to be still, that has been attempted to be sure and certain, and then the racialization of that despair, that longing. It’s the problem of renunciation. Because in order to short circuit being moved—what would one become in process of being moved? another and ever unasked question—it must be racialized, and after the racialization of it, the renunciation of it.

Reckson’s work lets me return, again as if for the first anoriginal time, to Fred Moten: the history of blackness is a testament to the fact that objects can and do resist. Those famous opening lines, the kind of writing and thought and process that has remained with me since I first read it. But with Reckson, I have to go a bit further still: While subjectivity is defined by the subject’s possession of itself and its objects, it is troubled by a dispossessive force objects exert such that the subject seems to be possessed—infused, deformed—by the object it possesses. And it’s because I for a very long time was a bit unsettled by the idea of possession of humans created by the gods.

Growing up in my enthusiastic, ecstatic, Blackpentecostal church, we often talked about the Holy Ghost and its inhabitation and indwelling as decidedly and emphatically not possession. We discussed it this way because, we opined, the believer speaking in tongues or prophecying is still in full control of their faculties, they are not overtaken but they allow the Holy Ghost to speak, to issue forth. It is this distinction between being possessed and being a possession that Reckson allows me to consider with more fullness.

When, for example, she discusses the ways secularism is another articulation of Western christological logic, how it does not break with but further entrenches racialization as a necessarily religious practice into the order of American thought, she states,

The very fact that critics have read [Du Bois’s frenzy] revival scene in such widely varying terms signals not simply Du Bois’s spiritual ambivalence but also his insistence on an ambiguity or doubleness at the very heart of ex-static practice: a movement in and “out” of self, as well as between past and present, subject and object (secular colonial categories that preceded the color line but were increasingly mapped in the post-Reconstruction era, via its violent configurations. (54)

This ambiguity is the blur, it’s the space between, the border and horizon and space of reprieve in which social life happens. There is an ambivalence and an incoherence that is the heart of frenzy, such that it is not easily given to analytics that bespeak the beastial and inhuman nature of black folks, nor is it easily assumed into acritical refusals to think frenzy as a practice and process worth thinking with and about, and thus able to be interrogated. Dismissal on one side, valorizing on the other, both practices of the epistemology that make black folks unwilling participants in a regime of knowledge production that does not take the social life of blackness as ground and root. Du Bois’s ambivalence might be the gift of breath, a kind of held inhalation and sighed exhalation, the sound and gush of wonder, curiosity, thought. He was neither willing to dismiss it as some holdover from evolutionary biology’s racialist project defining primitivism and leaving nonwhite people within that zone of primitivism, nor willing to dispense with thinking critically about what enthusiastic religious postures allowed and forestalled. It’s complicated and he remained with the complication.

What Reckson points to is a blur and in between that’s not contained or within the enclosures of the logic of racialism, though the practice of blackness happens there, within those enclosures and contaminants, too. The breath of black ecstasy, a being beside as a social practice and project, a frenzy of the social, releases a critique of the project of secularism into the world. But this critique does not ground itself in the rightness of particular doctrinal positions and theological orientations. The critique found in black frenzy of the kind Du Bois wrote about and Crane fell into, it is a critique found in the performance of being moved by others, being moved into an otherwise and living way.

Like inhalation. Like exhalation. Like breathing.

Perhaps we are all possessed of dispossession. Perhaps white supremacist capitalist patriarchy is the racializing of, and the renouncing relation to, one’s own breath, one’s own being made by possessing dispossession. Perhaps this racial regime of knowledge and practice is the subsequent transformation of being, in mutuality and joy and pleasure, possessed as the delight of and from a spiritual condition—not reducible to the religious—and instead makes being possessed private property.

I want to be precise here. What if the resistance of the object is in its capacity to release into the world its dispossessive force, such that the subject is infused and deformed, such that the subject is undone, such that the subject moved? Slipping into the space between being possessed as spiritual condition and practicing dispossession against being private property is the space of frenzy, of blackecstatic breath.

Reckson lets me get there. I’ve written about Ida B. Wells-Barnett, her taking the journalism of white supremacy and repurposing it for a liberation project. She was not singular but Realist Ecstasy really demonstrates the ways that journalistic practice is a practice of black social life, of blackecstatic breath. This became apparent to me in her discussion of William Wells Brown’s breathing out melodically, “A Song for Freedom”: “Brown retook the terms of the song’s ridicule and redirected its popularity toward the production of contagious enthusiasm for abolition” (Reckson, 77). The capacity to break with origin was in the song itself, the lyrics are not destinies, they can be changed either through voice or accent or content as critique. But for the break to be apparent, there has to be a knowledge of the thing for it to matter, for it to materialize, as critique. This is the practice, Reckson shows us, of blackecstatic breath, of belaboring through surprise and improvisation and change, the breath. And this in the service of a more livable, more breathable. Ecstatic because it catches hold in your chest, impacts the breath, ecstatic because what is desired is to spread among the people, to move those hearing it towards being moved.

Blackecstatic breath demonstrates the problem of our long historical moment is the problem of, the imposition against, being moved.

And the problem of being moved is demonstrated by renunciation, by relinquishing relation, by renouncing capacity. The idea that secularism is the antithesis or opposite of the religious or the spiritual or the flesh and thus the opposite of blackness, its antithesis, is an idea created precisely because of renunciation of breath, the flesh, being moved. Secularism, Reckson shows us, is an articulation of the racial regime, not its overcoming. It might even be the perfection of it, a supercessionist logic applied to the problem of belief, of spirit, of the church. But it does not break with that logic, it sharpens and refines it. And it sharpens and refines as an ideology purportedly opposite enthusiastic frenzies of Negro religion, an ideology of calm: “Posing as the ‘calm observer,’ the author notes the ‘true devotion’ of the camp meeting while reproducing a series of minstrel types” (93). This pose of calm allows one to refuse “the excess of irrationality embodied by slavery’s hyperrationalized forms of control projected outward onto bodies deemed decidedly too ‘free’” (95). The calm observer is produced by the resistance of the subject, not the object, the desired but impossible to achieve refusal of the subject bearing the weight, or feeling the impact, or sensing the movement, of a dispossessive force exerted from the purported object. The calm observer emerges from the desire to renounce and make impossible being-moved, this entity emerges as an attempt toward the creation of a dispassionate thing that is full, more than anything, of itself. And the racializing of a calm is the attempted renunciation of the object’s resistance.

There’s a lot of movement here even in the guise and desire and plea of not being moved.

But there is blackecstatic breath.

We want to, and do, scream into the void, we want to and do practice acknowledgment of existential dread and uncertainty. It’s in the beat and the rhythm and the movement. But we wait, we tarry in the break between utterance into the void and reply, we wait, we tarry for response to the encountered call. That wait and dance and play is existential joy. This joy exceeds that dread and uncertainty. This joy of being beside and outside the self in the social as ground, blurs. And this wait, this tarrying, is possible because of the social life of black living, an alchemized inoculation that sits with the dread, the fragility, welcomes it, makes dread and fragility friend. It is in this waiting and tarrying and sitting with outside and against enclosure that we breathe. Collective breath, enraptured delight. Down in the world, in the thick of the fear. And, as Gwendolyn Brooks says, living—and I’ll add breathing and worshipping and acting frenzied—in the along.

  • Lindsay Reckson


    On Not Being Moved

    Perhaps because ecstasy moves before and against the normative, singular self—because it incarnates what Crawley understands as an ante- and antinormative relationality (before and against colonial, racialized, cisheteropatriarchal orders of being)—ecstasy must be captured and defused. Realism’s appetite for such capture is enormous. Rendering black spiritual life the subject of materialist investigation, realism (insofar as it serves and consolidates whiteness) labors to police the bounds of immanence and transcendence. In this sense it testifies to the hegemonic force of white secularism and the violence of what W. E. B. Du Bois called “a new religion of whiteness.”1

    Or in Crawley’s crucial terms, whiteness as “renounc[ed] relation,” as “the renunciation of the social.” Whiteness as the refusal to be possessed by the dispossessive force of collective being—whiteness invests, always, in accumulation as the model of the (proprietary, possessive, self-possessed) subject. WhitenessÔ as proprietary—a corporate structure. And whiteness, crucially, as secular witness. The “calm observer,” unmoved by scenes of ecstatic possession. Crawley helps me name, more precisely, the violence of this. In the book I call it the affective life of Jim Crow secularism, but we could also call it a profound renunciation of being beside, the dispossessing power of a fundamental collectivity-in-motion.

    I thought of Crawley’s account of blackpentecostal breath when trying to write about the violence of Jim Crow secularism in William Dean Howells’s An Imperative Duty (1891). The title’s unnamed imperative is renunciation—of relation broadly, but also quite literally of shared breath. When Rhoda Aldgate, the protagonist of the novel, visits the evening meeting at a black church in Boston, she is seeking relation. Having learned the close-kept family secret—that she is descended from enslaved women despite her phenotypical whiteness—Rhoda attempts to “surround herself with the blackness from which she had sprung, and to reconcile herself to it, by realizing and owning it with every sense.” As Howells’s language obliquely signals, “owning” here is colonial, an effort to make it real through multiple forms of possession. “Owning” here in the sense of oblique confession—the tragic mulatta plot unfolds the constitutive national/family secret (economy) of antiblack sexual violence—but also as in the will-to-possess, to preserve whiteness through ownership.2 Rhoda’s effort to surround herself with blackness leads, perhaps unsurprisingly, to sensory disturbance and bodily disorder:

    The night was warm, and as the church filled, the musky exhalations of their bodies thickened the air, and made the girl faint; it seemed to her that she began to taste the odor; and these poor people, whom their Creator has made so hideous by the standards of all his other creatures, roused a cruel loathing in her, which expressed itself in a frantic refusal of their claim upon her.

    Her bodily boundaries dis-integrated and her senses hyperbolically mingled, Rhoda’s whiteness asserts itself as a frantic refusal of spiritual relation—a commitment to the casual cruelness of Jim Crow secularism and its production of normative (unmoved) selves.3 Casually cruel but no less insidious; the sheer existence of black people depicted here as a kind of suffocating imposition and threat to Rhoda’s bodily integrity, a familiar inversion of the violence that everyday delimits black breath, “that is fundamentally about the interdiction, the desired theft, of the capacity to breath.”4 A frantic refusal. At the end of the novel, Rhoda marries her white doctor and moves to Italy, where her relations are never in question, where she can breathe freely.

    There is, as Crawley points out, “a lot of movement here even in the guise and desire and plea of not being moved.” I am deeply grateful for this formulation, which makes even more urgent for me the stakes of reading secularism and realism as choreographies—movements that shape the very possibilities of lived relation in the wake of slavery, settler colonialism, and genocide. I’m also thinking again about the choreography of shadows in ethnographer James Mooney’s photographs of the Ghost Dance, images meant to preserve for white study a “primitive” ecstatic religion in the present, which body forth in no uncertain terms the custodial violence of the reservation era as well as the genocidal force of secularism, as in the massacre at Wounded Knee. Through the glitch that preserves Mooney’s shadow on those images—the sharply-outlined trace of the belabored production of stillness—we witness the racialized choreographies of not being moved. This is a very different kind of dance, but it signals (to me) how much realism remains animated by precisely what it aims to contain, suppress, or renounce.

    Such scenes of choreographed stillness are what Fred Moten and Stefano Harney term the “logistical conditions of knowledge production.”5 Focusing on how much movement attends the guise and desire and plea of not being moved returns me to Moten and Harney’s account of modern logistics—the dream of a frictionless movement of things founded in the Atlantic slave trade and the circulation of speaking commodities. As they note, “logistics could not contain what it had relegated to the hold.”6 The resistance of the object—as Crawley’s work also teaches me—is not the achievement of what has been denied: a self-contained subject able to move or not at will, to possess itself. Rather the resistance of the object is a dispossessive frenzy; a “refusal of what has been refused”; a “tumultuous derangement” of the very terms of possession and dispossession under racial capitalism; a falling out or being moved together.7

    As the post-Reconstruction moment teaches us over and over, terror responds to the ecstasy it cannot delimit.8 Which is why, in the texts I try to reckon with, ecstasy and terror happen sometimes in the same frame. Sometimes in the same breath.

    Inhalation, exhalation, exaltation. As Alexis Pauline Gumbs reminds us, “the scale of breathing is collective”; at the same time, the very breaths we get to take (or don’t) are shaped by ongoing legacies of slavery, colonialism, and environmental devastation (“breathing in unbreathable circumstances is what we do every day in the chokehold of racial gendered ableist capitalism”).9 This is why blackecstatic breath, as Crawley notes, moves in the service of “something more livable, more breathable.” So that we might move towards, not away from each other—towards, not away from the fact of our cobeing, our cobreathing. Ex-static, as in: together, out of our singular selves, in motion. So that we “might practice,” in Gumbs’s words, “another way to breathe.”

    1. W. E. B. Du Bois, “The Souls of White Folk,” in W. E. B. Du Bois: Writings (New York: Library of America, 1987), 924.

    2. See Cheryl I. Harris, “Whiteness as Property,” Harvard Law Review 106.8 (June 1993) 1707–91.

    3. On the racialized sensory disturbance of this scene, see Erica Fretwell, Sensory Experiments: Psychophysics, Race, and the Aesthetics of Feeling (Durham: Duke University Press, 2020), 172-173.

    4. Crawley, Blackpentecostal Breath, 6.

    5. Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study (Minor Compositions, 2013), 88.

    6. Harney and Moten, The Undercommons, 92.

    7. Harney and Moten, The Undercommons, 96; Fred Moten, Stolen Life (Durham: Duke University Press, 2018), 32.

    8. Here I am drawing on Koritha Mitchell’s crucial insistence that cultural critics center the self-defined success of marginalized groups rather than their responsiveness to social violence; as Mitchell reminds us, “violence pursues them because they accumulate achievements, and American culture is designed to remind everyone that accomplishment is meant for straight white men.” This includes, I would argue, the achievement of community-based forms of ecstatic belonging. Koritha Mitchell, “Identifying White Mediocrity and Know-Your-Place Aggression: A Form of Self Care,” African American Review 51.4 (Winter 2018) 253.

    9. Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals (AK Press, 2020), preface.


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