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.
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.
To read beside
of ecstasy, of encounter (on Lindsay Reckson’s Realist Ecstasy)
I sit with Lindsay Reckson’s Realist Ecstasy and immediately my impulse—within the first pages—is to think what it will be to write “beside,” to be with her beside; to think besideness. For Reckson, the ek-static is not so much a coming outside oneself as finding oneself beside all this stuff, this ontology one could say; this thing (this history of ideas) that suggests that one is either oneself, or within oneself, or else one has passed beyond. But history, as she shows, is full of amnesias and slippages, of ghostings; of double exposures—and the history of photography she offers is immense, too, with James Mooney and his Kodak and the Ghost Dance. They are ghostly, presencing a world that should, could, would have been to come.
And so there is a grammar in this. To think with Reckson beside, as regards besideness, is also to undo, or to redo, grammars. And so I think, she thinks, here, with, of, alongside, Spillers of course;1 and as I read her (Reckson, Reckson beside Spillers), there is Saidya Hartman; and I pick up my copy of Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments (2019), which I dipped into, and find myself dipping into again.2
Reading beside, then, is also picking up the book one had meant to look at, and looked at, and that one finds oneself looking at, and entangling it into this, another conversation. And finding that “conversation” is not quite the right metaphor. And there is Elizabeth Freeman in this, and temporal drag;3 we are wayward, dragging and tugging, gently, at bits of thoughtful life. With Reckson, the notion of the ecstatic is a thinking of spirituality—black spirituality, and Native spirituality, and so many more—not so much as religion, a thing one believes, but a practice of finding oneself in companionship, camaraderie. And so naturally, to write with this is to write alongside; one is, as Reckson notes, after Judith Butler, “beside oneself” with joy, with pleasure, with a feeling of companionship, especially pressing, during this time of retrenchments, affectively, or affects otherwise.4 And so to be reading this now matters; to be reading it at any time would matter too. Reckson suggests that with Hartman, “gesture” is to be understood “as in gerere, to carry or to bear”; “to practices of knowledge and transmission through which the body is made the site not of continuous memory but of repetitive counterinsistence, ‘catalyzed by the inadequacy of redress and the regularity of domination and terror.’”5 Hartman is talking of a “‘subterranean history of rupture’ to which performance gestures”;6 for Reckson, this is a way to read the “archive of minstrelsy” that Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage (1895) offers, a way to think performances of “Dandy Jim,” as minstrelsy show, and the eerily recuperative “jim-dandy,” the character Jim, who figures in this book, who offers a way to remember, quite literally, to member again, as regards dismemberments, corpses; it is all a lot. It cannot be remembered, re-membered, put together again, and as Reckson says, the point is not to redo recovery, to linger overly much on the corpse of this Jim, but to do another postmortem, as she puts it (69), to do another way of thinking “bodies as kinetic archives” (70), that is to say the way that even within literature—perhaps most of all, or just as much within literature—there is a way that movement, rhythm, figures, and this figuring of movement is a figuring of the way alongsideness, besideness, ecstatic reality, ecstatic realism, comes to bear on what is not quite right; on what is shown in plain view as a hiding, disavowal, elimination, death, and such. And so what is communicable is the feeling of difficulty with regard to moving forward, one could say.
When I think through further moments of this book, flip through these pages, to recall the moments of reading, the thinking-with, and find my scribbles again, underlines, moments of enthusiastic recognition, gratitude, at this work with material that finds a new life here, that suggests a concept at work, at play, a conjoining of concepts into something of a torsion that holds whole histories that could not quite in this way yet be told (realism, ecstasy, the two already so counterintuitively unraveling all that would suggest surrealism and dreamstate when the ecstatic is conjured), I find myself resting on some words in the coda: “Ecstasy abuts terror” (234). Yes. “Rather than rehearsing fantasies of transcendence—of getting beyond histories of racial slavery, colonialism, genocide, and removal—ecstasy signals our being beside and within them” (234). We do not ever get away. At the same time, I think here of Pierre Hadot, for whom the “oceanic feeling”—another way to think ecstasy?—describes something like being along with everyone, everything, just for a time. And this possibility of opening, against all the odds of racial violence, of enslavement, of poverty, or sadness, or of other sorts of joy distinct from the “oceanic,” finds a way, I think, into the alongsideness of realist ecstasy, or at least it does in my mind as I toggle between these visions, these memories and experiences and moments of conceptualising again the “ecstatic.” So that there might be on the one hand a sort of ecstatic realism, what Reckson describes, that which opens our thinking to the ways ecstatic singing, worshipping, feeling, rips apart the fabric of violence all while showing the way this ripping apart is another way of holding something like comradeship for some time; and on the other, a kind of oceanic moment, within which there is temporary erasure of categories, a sort of dissolving, or expansion. Hadot writes: “What is capital is the impression of immersion, of dilation of the self in Another to which the self is not foreign, because it belongs to it.”7 He had, as a child, found himself within the experience of staring at the starry sky, of intensely existing, of being one with this all; referring to Michel Hulin, who also described the “oceanic sentiment” as that of “being present here and now in a work that is itself intensely existing,” and to Romain Rolland,8 whom Freud had been baffled by for his expression of this same oceanic feeling,9 Hadot suggests in reminiscing on his life’s work that it was this feeling of oceanic communion that prompted his political engagement, his feeling of the necessity, the urgency, of finding ways better to live, to think. Far from angry or deluded mysticism (Freud’s sentiment, as well as Wilhelm Reich’s),10 this oceanic experience suggests another approach to being-with and through that opens up world, rather than provokes closure or capture. Reckson, too, thinks along with, at angles with, Freud in moments, and the way “savagery” (“savages”) supposedly preserve some key to the past, some trace.
This book then offers something of a set of contrapuntal moments, a way of working away from explanation, extraction, and towards the rhythmic sway of observations which, one hopes, allow for a breathing within thinking through a set of archives. As Reckson has it, the question “What does Jim Crow secularism feel like?” (1, 5) can only be answered by thinking or reading, and writing, against the grain of grand narratives, and towards a choreographic and performative honouring of ways bodies, people, moved through concepts of white suprematist snubbing of any religiosity other than staunchly Protestant, for instance; but it is easier to say than to think how to feel this. And so moving through books, images, we find ourselves in scenes of revelry, or dismemberment, or punishment—the electric chair, which requires only pushing a button (her penultimate chapter, “Touching a Button”). And each of these reconfigures motion and touch; so that even the button is found again by way of the contact that does require a body to do something to (beside, but violently now) another body. The button is not immune from the haptic, as much as one might imagine it to be so.
It is striking, to return to the notion of ecstasy abutting terror (234) to think of the ways that fear is a contraction, ecstasy dilation, expansion; and that when we reach out towards others, we do this with all of our body and something else, a feeling of meeting others; a Touching Feeling, to be here with Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, something so awkwardly gendered female, weak.11 To be “touchy feely” is the worst thing of all, some would have one think. When things are too sentimental, sappy, they run like the lifeblood of trees; but to touch and feel—including a button that will kill someone with the fizzing ferocity of an electric current—is also to inhabit the space of coexistence, of sociality when it is lived, rather than imagined only. This is the “real” social body, one could say; not the fiction or the fantasy of a social body. And this is where politics also takes place; where religion, and politics, and society, go up in a whirl. For Gil Anidjar, “blood” is a little bit like this: it is a political concept, or to be included in a lexicon of political concepts, precisely because blood is of course not a concept; it is what spills in acts of violence.12 It is what marks one body as it spills out of itself. This is, perhaps, another form of ecstasy, or ek-static translation, the passage from one realm of reality into (or out of) another. And blood is not political, he writes.13 It is and is not, therefore, at the edge, or the centre, or the heart—of course—of what “political” and “conceptual” mean. Hence, the “critical lexicon,” the project that attempts to dismember the language with which we think. “Ecstatic realism”: a double concept, a way of thinking that which is utterly non-conceptual (ecstasy), and that which is utterly non-ecstatic, perhaps (realism), except inasmuch as ecstasy is very real, very much part of the embedded everyday, very much a way of conjoining the everyday and a passage out from this, or acknowledgment of the way one is with others in a real and not in a real; or in history and in the present, and the history saturates this and does not let it go, and it is not in the past, but beside.
Homi K. Bhahba, Reckson notes, suggests: “To slow down the linear, progressive time of modernity [is] to reveal its ‘gesture,’ its tempi, ‘the pauses and stresses of the whole performance.’”14 “Modernity as performance” means “movement predicated on, and producing, the stillness of some bodies” (179). This is a stillness distinct from rest, from the “active stillness” of a sit-in, such as Susan Foster describes;15 it is a stillness, in the case Reckson reads, symptomatic of death—the electric chair is something that one could say paradoxically provides the illusion of resting, and then all the energy of the current, the whole apparently mechanistic, administrative, performative also—modern. I think that if there is one thing this work invites most to think, it is the way choreography, performance, do not only allow for reaching towards history through bodily and other recoveries, but also how choreography, performance constitute methods and manners for thinking ways one is within a fictive “whole” or a “moment,” gently, or else violently, beside.
Hortense Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” Diacritics 17.2 (1987) 64–81.↩
Saidiya Hartman, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women and Queer Radicals (London: Serpent’s Tail, 2019).↩
See Elizabeth Freeman, Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011); Lindsay V. Reckson, Realist Ecstasy: Religion, Race, and Performance in American Literature (New York: New York University Press, 2020), 275n64; 219.↩
Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (New York: Verso, 2006): 24; cited in Reckson, 15–16, passim.↩
Reckson, 75; Saidya V. Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-making in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 76.↩
Reckson, 75; Hartman, Scenes of Subjection, 76.↩
Pierre Hadot, The Present Alone Is Our Happiness: Conversations with Jeannie Carlier and Arnold I. Davidson, trans. Marc Djaballah (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009), 8. See also, e.g., Hadot, Exercices spirituels et philosophie antique, preface by Arnold I. Davidson, new ed. (Paris: Albin Michel, 2002).↩
Hadot, The Present Alone, 8; Michel Hulin, La mystique sauvage (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1993), 56–57.↩
Sigmund Freud expresses his annoyance (or at least bafflement and incomprehension) at his “friend’s” beatific expression of the “oceanic” as “something limitless, unbounded.” Freud sees this as “the source of religious energy which is seized upon by the various Churches and religious systems”; he admits in a footnote that the friend in question is Romain Rolland, the French playwright, novelist and essayist whose La vie de Ramakrishna and La vie de Vivekananda were published in 1929 and 1930, respectively. At the same time, Freud is also forced to admit that likely this same feeling of “oneness with the universe,” while connected to “obscure modifications of mental life, such as trances and ecstasies,” when practiced via techniques such as Yoga and other methods of “withdrawal from the world,” specific forms of attention or focus and breathing, might produce a feeling of rejoicing and light. Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, trans. and ed. James Strachey (New York: Norton, 1969, 1981): 11, 11n2, 21. It is significant that Freud’s emphasis on total communion, as per Rolland and “another friend’s” testimonies, while aligned with Hadot’s experience, also differs from the besideness Reckson outlines, and which perhaps more properly joins something Michel Leiris described in his work on “The Acted Theatre and the Lived Theatre of the Zar Cult,” where he noticed that attaining trance did not necessarily require spontaneous passage into an altered state of consciousness but a crafted and cultivated set of arguably theatrical behaviours that nevertheless enable the shaman or other eventually to achieve something like ecstasy. The ecstatic in this sense becomes something one does, with others, or that one cultivates and exercises, and not exclusively something that is given to one out of hand. See Michel Leiris, “Acted Theatre and Lived Theatre in the Zar Cult,” trans. James Clifford, Sulfur (1986), 113–17.↩
For Freud, ecstatic experiences, such as in the “oceanic” feeling or in the experience of love, where “the boundary between ego and object threatens to melt away” and where, “against all the evidence of his senses, a man . . . declares ‘I’ and ‘you’ are one, and is prepared to behave as if it were a fact” (13) suggest a pathological state at the root of religious illusions and backward states (even though as per n6 he sees that in some cases it could plausibly lead individually to something rather more sublime). Wilhelm Reich, writing a few decades later, suggested that on the contrary lack of orgasmic release and communion leads to the miserable and angry mysticism of the masses exploited throughout the twentieth century by authoritarian ideology and fascism. See Wilhelm Reich, The Mass Psychology of Fascism, ed. Mary Higgins and Chester M. Raphael, trans. Mary Higgins (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1970).↩
Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003).↩
Gil Anidjar, “Blood,” in Political Concepts: A Critical Lexicon, ed. J. M. Bernstein et al. (New York: Fordham University Press, 2018), 25–44, at 25.↩
Anidjar, “Blood,” 25.↩
Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture (New York: Routledge, 1994), 364; cited in Reckson, 179.↩
Susan L. Foster, “Choreographies of Protest,” Theatre Journal 55.3 (2003) 395–412, at 412.↩
The Ecstatic Ground of “Half Drowned” Bodies
In Lindsay Reckson’s Realist Ecstasy, Reckson asks us to think about realism not as a stable artistic movement but rather as a set of practices and techniques of producing, or enacting and reenacting, the real. With this more capacious articulation of realism, Reckson invites us to think about how such techniques were mobilized by and for post-reconstruction era ideas about secularism, ecstatic bodies, and white supremacy. Practitioners of realism, Reckson contends, contributed to the construction and naturalization of what she calls “jim crow secularism”—the defining and ordering of different practices of religious expression along lines of racial difference. Reckson’s examination focuses on how realism produces ecstatic bodies in motion, or realist ecstasy. Realist ecstasy, she argues, not only names sites of disciplining and obscuring black and ecstatic bodies, but also sites of recognition of otherwise orderings and alternative modes of social organizing potentially at play in these ecstatic corporeal expressions. Realist Ecstasy is an examination of the regulation and devaluation of black and ecstatic bodies. But it is also a consideration of the importance of “lingering” and attending to the possibilities held open in the excess materiality of black ecstatic life.
Indeed what is at once intellectually and imaginatively compelling—and often pleasurable—about Realist Ecstasy is Reckson’s attention to the energetic materiality that attends ecstatic black bodies: How the “deeply unwholesome environs” and “contagious air” (35) of “musky exultations” and “thickened air”(3) imagined in Howell’s depiction of the black church become “an infection of the general happiness . . . exultation” of restorative gathering, “social communion,” and the reunification of black familial ties in Harper’s Iola Leroy.(49) The illegible excitement of black bodies in worship that manifests as the “quickening . . . pulse” and “glowing” of black “genius” in Cooper.(45) The sparks of an otherwise black collectivity charged by the electric orality of the black preacher in W. E. B. Du Bois and James Weldon Johnson’s narratives—an electricity always both mitigated and mediated by the powerful elements of water (Du Bois) and fire (Johnson). The haunting excesses of indigenous bodies, excitedly “roll[ing] over” the ground with watching eyes, refusing the realist imperative to stay dead or “squinting into the sun, insisting on a world that exceeds the colonial frame” (131). The “fear and fascination” aroused by the “mystery and indefinable gestures” of a doubly black “countenance turned toward the sky” in Stephen Crane’s The Monster (1) that manifests in Nella Larsen’s Quicksand as the queer enthusiasm excited by throngs of colored people, commuting, dancing, and leaping in Harlem’s streets, clubs, and storefront churches. “Lingering” and attending to the possibilities held open in the excesses of realist ecstasy, suggests Reckson, may enable us to consider the intervals of refuge, reimagining, resistance in which bodies-in-motion, crowded, congregated, and beside themselves (and the self), might, in the very opacity of their collective ecstasy, challenge the violent arrests of white supremacy and the limits of the secular and realist production of real.
The Ecological Substance of Black Ecstasy
I am interested in the frequency with which the rolling refusals, social communions, queer reunions, and otherwise collectivities held open in realist ecstasy is mediated by material and metaphorical invocations to the queerly seductive and dangerously powerful elements of nature. At least for the black texts Reckson examine, the “possibilities and perils”(182) of ecstatic black bodies in motion may be bound up with, which is to say, may be expressed best besides, the material forms and forces of the natural world. Here I am thinking about how Johnson’s mobilization of electricity is attended by related but not interchangeable force of fire. Or the competing ecstasies of longingly envisioning “the free air” and passion[ately] . . . peering over the grey unresting waters” in “Of the Coming of John.”1 And how the material and symbolic presence of the sea in the death of Alexander Crummell is curiously weighted by the presence of all four classical elements: “He sat one morning gazing toward the sea. He smiled and said, ‘The gate is rusty on the hinges’ That night at star-rise a wind came moaning out of the west to blow the gate ajar, and then the soul I loved fled like a flame across the Seas” (Reckson, 58, quoting Du Bois). In the spirit or Reckson’s compelling call to “linger,” I want to linger, for a while, in the (im)possible interval between water and land, on the shores and “Beside the River-sea” but also in the curious geological ex-stasis of eddies, quagmires, bogs, and quicksands.2
I am thinking about the image of sand and water, which Du Bois invokes twice in “Of the Coming of John.” Before the narrator adopts the mirror black-white structure of describing John’s hometown and his relationship to it, the narrator describes the town in geographical terms: “He came to us from Altamaha, away down there beneath the gnarled oaks of Southeastern Georgia, where the sea croons to the sands and the sands listen till they sink half drowned beneath the waters, rising only here and there in long, low islands.”3 The narrator later invokes this image of the “half drowned” and “sinking” sands again as a metaphor to describe the affective “swelling” and “sinking” the music of Lohengrin. “And his heart sank below the waters, even as the sea-sand sinks by the shores of Altamaha.”4 Here the narrator makes explicit what in the earlier description a suggestion of a metaphorical alignment between the black peoples of Altamaha and the “almost drowned” sands along the town’s shore. With its tongue-twisting alliteration of ‘s’ sounds, the sentence itself mirrors something of the seductive lull—the crooning sea—though enticing threatens to drown and deluge. What does it mean to think about the sea-as a kind of secular baptism- if the baptized black body must also be thought of as the sands? And their baptism not as the coupled act of submerging in and emerging from the waters but as an ongoing submersion? A deluged existence in the interval between land and water?
Inextricable from and Other Than
And what might it mean to consider the ecstatic black bodies relationship to the interval of water and sea as something like a constitutive besideness? I am wondering about the idea of secularism as a kind of quicksand in Nella Larsen’s novel (202). I am interested in what appears to be a repeated suggestion that we might think secularism in terms of a geological formation in which one can sink. Though, of course, the danger of quicksand isn’t actually in sinking. The human body will not sink more than half way in quicksand, which is a higher density fluid. The danger is in getting stuck. Getting stuck in quicksand, depending on the duration of their confinement, the weather, and other surrounding conditions, could render one vulnerable to hypothermia, predators, flood, dehydration, and compression shock. Five widely offered tips for escaping quicksand: (1) make yourself as light as possible; (2) avoid big, frantic movements; (3) (keeping with #1) distribute your bodyweight over a larger area by laying back onto the surface (assuming a position my YMCA swim instructors called “the deadman’s float”); (4) adopt small, deliberate, and controlled movements; and be patient and keep calm.
If we think about secularism as a metaphorical quicksand, then how are we to understand the tension between frenzied ecstatic movements and small controlled movements, which that metaphor suggests? Does the fact that frenzied movement increase the difficulty of extricating one’s self from quicksand affect our ability to read the “joyous, wild, murky” movements of ecstatic bodies in motion as a refuge? To be sure, the question is in part a question of scale and the level of abstraction with which we approach the metaphor. Idiomatically, quicksand refers to any situation or place that is easy to get into but difficult if not dangerous to get out of. It is not hard to see how Larsen’s protagonist moves from one proverbial quicksand to another. Again and again Helga Crane, buoyed by elated visions of variety and freedom, makes a rash move only to soon find “that things were not exactly going forward as they should.” Again and again she finds herself feeling restless and stuck. In the broader picture of Helga Crane’s entire lifespan and character development, these instances of ecstatic collectivity are relatively small movements. Certainly they seem small in contrast to the sudden big moves Helga Crane makes which entail large (if not complete) changes in place, culture, and social relations. But when we make this comparison, we are no longer thinking about the materiality of bodies in movement. We are thinking more abstractly in terms of the developmental impact of these instances of bodies in motion (an impact measured in part by duration and distance). Doing so, as Reckson’s examination illustrates, calls attention to the tensions between movement and constraint and the condensed, linear temporality of modern progress (speed, quickness) and the extended duration of lingering and retrospection. But can we also think ecstatic movement within the context of the material particularities, which Larsen’s title invokes? What happens if we linger in the perhaps excessive details of the physical substance of quicksand? What might such lingering reveal about the ecstatic materiality of black collectivity in the novel?
A Queer Mingling
[EPI]Escort v. from the Latin excorrigere, which comes from the Latin ex “out of, from within; from which time, since; according to; in regard to” + Latin corrigere “set right,” “to put straight, attempt to make (a crooked thing) straight, reduce to order, set right.” —OED[/EPI]
The geological formation referred to as quicksand is a heterogeneous mixture—a colloid—in which the solid substance of sand, dirt, clay, or other granular material are evenly dispersed in another substance, in this case water. A non-Newtonian fluid that acts sometimes like a liquid and sometimes like a solid and which is neither solution nor suspension, quicksand is a queer mixture. Unlike other fluids, its thickness is not affected by temperature. Rather its viscosity is a function of pressure (the weight of a body) or stress (the disturbance of movement). While the sediment may look solid on the surface, once stress is applied, the particles disperse; the viscosity decreases; the sand liquefies. It only takes a 1 percent change in stress (much less than the weight of a human step) to initiate this process. The more you move (and disturb the mixture), the more it acts like a liquid (and causes you to sink). Yet, at the same time (or what can easily feel like the same time), your weight and gravity cause the particles underneath you to compress and the particles around you to settle, making the substance thicker and harder to extract yourself from. How might we think the ecstatic movements within the geological and physical queerness of quicksand itself?
Perhaps we can think about Larsen’s metaphor of quicksand beside Du Bois’s metaphor of the sinking sea-sand. If Du Bois’s metaphor aligns black bodies with the “almost drowned” sand, overwhelmed by the waters of the sea, then might the metaphor of quicksand imagine an otherwise relationship between sand and sea? Which is to ask, what if we again think of black people’s relationship to this geological interval of land and water as a constitutive beside? Part of the queerness of quicksand (and, perhaps, of Quicksand) is that granular material is loose, but not loose enough for the water to escape or wash over the sand. When sand is more densely packed, as in the beach ground or to lesser extent a sandcastle, sand, as a collective body, can hold its shape. In quicksand, the granular particles are not close enough to hold their shape, but they are not so loose that their relationality is lost. Under the stress of a surface pressure, the granular particles move closer together, subsuming the stressing weight, releasing it to the very water that at once floods the sand and is trapped by the sand.
If we think about Helga Crane and the Reverend Mr. Pleasant Green as individual grains in a larger body of black sand, then we might think of the ecstatic movement beside each other not as a continuation of the collective ecstasy of the church service that occasioned their meeting but as part of the dispersion of that collective togetherness. What Green offers Helga Crane in “proffering his escort” is not the same as the exuberance of ecstatic bodies in collective motion that Helga experiences in the storefront church congregation. Despite the ease with which narrative progression can suggest a causal relationship between linear sequenced events, Larsen’s narrative resists suggesting a direct causal relation between Helga’s conversion—the fact that “something happened”—and the tragedy of her seeming demise after she decides to run headlong into marriage and the reproductive imperatives she had previously protested. Larsen distinguishes between Green and the charismatic charge of the preaching in the storefront church service. Though he introduces himself as also a pastor, Green in not the pastor of, nor does he occupy a distinguished position in, the storefront church. Indeed his presence in chapter 20 is a minor and nameless one. He is only the “fattish yellow man with huge outstanding ears and long, nervous hands,5 “the man at her [Helga’s] other side” whose “furtive glances” at her she did not “notice”;6 he is “the swaying man at her right” who was “shook” with a “shudder” “at the sight of her bare arms and neck growing out of [her] clinging red dress.”7 He is part of the anonymous collective (except perhaps inasmuch as his notable male gaze distinguishes him from the “feminine portion”).8 Only after the spatial-temporal shift initiated in the formal break between chapters does he emerge as a distinct subject with whom Helga Crane establishes an individual relationship away from (and after) the collective experience of the church service. To be sure, Larsen continues to rhetorically emphasize the significance of their beside relation: Helga Crane “walked beside him, without attention.” And during their walk, Helga or Larsen or both think of him as “the man beside her.”
Indeed Green emerges as a named character in chapter 21 only within Larsen’s curious syntactical reiteration of his existence as “with her” and “beside her”—in “proffering his escort.” Over the course of chapters 20–21, however, what Reckson identifies as the narrative’s ambivalence becomes decidedly more biting. Where at the beginning of chapter 21, the narrative describes Green as “the fattish yellow man who had sat behind her. He introduced himself as the reverend Mr. Pleasant Green in proffering his escort,”9 the narrative, at the open of chapter 22, describes Green (now Helga Crane’s husband) as “the Reverend Mr. Pleasant Green, that rattish yellow man, who had so kindly, so unctuously, proffered his escort to her hotel on the memorable night of her conversion.”10 The repetition emphasizes the significance imported to Green’s function as escort, though now formally further from the collective ecstasy of the church conversion, this emphasis—with its rhyming substitution of “rattish” and the excessiveness of “so kindly, so unctuously”—is unabashedly critical.
Yet, the question held open in the narrative’s biting, but not gone, ambivalence is: Critical of what? Are we to think of the ecstasy that permeates this post-service escort as an extension of the ecstasy of the church service? Or, does the chapter break formally signal a break in the circuit of narrative energy? Might the insularity of the hetero-normative pairing—the couple’s reterritorializing of singularity—as a thing increasingly apart or dispersed from the collective congregation, be part of Larsen’s realist considerations of the limits of ecstasy’s otherwise rupture? And if yes, might quicksand—the queer, not solution, not suspension, transubstantive mingling of sand and water—be thought of not as a geological figuration of the force of secularism, but of a powerful, otherwise, unseen (or, other than as seen) substance of collective black mingling, an ecstatic mingling of black bodies inextricable from the terrors of an ongoing flooding.
Du Bois, “Of the Coming of John,” chapter 13 in The Souls of Blackness, digital version, Project Gutenberg, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/408/408-h/408-h.htm#chap13.↩
Du Bois, “Of the Coming of John.”↩
Du Bois, “Of the Coming of John.”↩
Du Bois, “Of the Coming of John.”↩
Nella Larsen, Quicksand (New York: Knopf, 1928), accessed online via Hathi Trust Digital Library, https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=mdp.39015054061430&view=1up&seq=310&q1=floating, 248.↩
Larsen, Quicksand, 250.↩
Larsen, Quicksand, 251.↩
Larsen, Quicksand, 252.↩
Larsen, Quicksand, 256.↩
Larsen, Quicksand, 263.↩
Barack Obama tells his just-short-of-ecstatic conversion story in his 1995 memoir Dreams from My Father. Describing a Sunday morning service at Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ, Obama describes the scene of worship as a charismatic force sweeping through the church. “People began to shout, to rise from their seats and clap and cry out,” he writes, “a forceful wind carrying the reverend’s voice up into the rafters.” The loud wind of ecstatic worship produces in Obama a quiet, contrasting Anglo-Protestant conversion. It is an inward, rational consent to the premise of the gospel and an affirmation that will become his political signature, hope: “And in that single note—hope!—I heard something else. . . . Our trials and triumphs became at once unique and universal, black and more than black.”1 One can feel the earnestness, the desperation for intellectual distance, the future politician’s breathless attempt to draw a neat rational lesson from the enthusiasm that surrounds him. The narrator-protagonist assumes the role of sympathetic observer, setting himself apart by his admission that he hears not what the other congregants hear but “something else,” not what he perceives as a cacophonous homogeneity of Blackness but a universal more-than-Blackness that can only be grasped by a quiet, set-apart, exceptional subject. The silent abstracting of the politician from the loud, embodied scene of frenzy demands that Obama ventriloquize his own conversion through the presumably Black woman congregant beside him: “‘Oh Jesus,’ I hear the older woman beside me whisper softly. ‘Thank you for carrying us this far.’” If Obama sits apart from what Ashon Crawley signals as blackpentecostalism’s “breathing into the capacities of infinite alternatives,”2 he also feminizes the Black ecstatic us that is beside him.
Contrast this liberal step-aside to gospel mime performer Susan Webb’s self-presentation as the ecstatic us, her placement beside the divine, beside herself, in the film Sensus Plenior. Sensus Plenior, premiering at Paris’s Jeu de Paume museum in 2017, is visual and performance artist Steffani Jemison’s powerful meditation on Blackness, gesture, and the ecstatic enfleshment of the Word. It is based on Jemison’s film recording of a gospel mime performance by mime minister Reverend Susan Webb. As Webb offers her interpretation of gospel lyrics in live congregation, she opens the always-already black and feminized ecstatic us to what Tina Post names a “utopic glitch,” a suspension in which “the body might enact a utopic temporality that is neither animal nor mechanical, neither past nor future.”3 Jemison manipulates the time-based media to comment on, and to further effect, this glitch. She dramatically slows the video and overlays Webb’s performance—ministry is the better word—with what Osei Bonsu calls an “unnerving soundtrack of rhythmic strings sections that disrupt the narrative order” as Jemison “complicates the boundaries of performance and cinema.”4 The result is a takeover of the modern visual technology by the antic form of gesture: the pantomime effects a distortion of time that allows Webb to hang suspended in the body, in meaning.5 This ecstatic suspension is what Lindsay Reckson refers to as a being beside: “not so much ‘disembodied’ affect as one that takes the imagined, projected, and assumed body as both medium and problematic.”6
Four stills from Steffani Jemison’s Sensus Plenior. High-definition video, black and white, sound, 34:36. Courtesy of the artist. In the images, gospel mime Rev. Susan Webb first rehearses a performance, drawing her arms in a circle and moving her fingers around a round shape as if holding and animating something that has been lost or is coming into being; then she applies white makeup to her face, pausing with her hands open in a gesture of generosity; then performs the gospel mime as a form of inspirational expression, antically enfleshing the Word, first rising up and raising her hands out to her sides as she looks down, as if taking flight, and then falling backwards in ecstasy.
If we take the implications of Reckson’s masterful Realist Ecstasy: Religion, Race, and Performance in American Literature to heart, we might see the ecstatic besideness that surrounds but does not engulf Obama in Dreams from My Father, and that moves Jemison’s film and its subject, as an invitation to reflect on what Reckson refers to as American modernity’s “dramas of possession,” its incessant flirtation with and policing of Black (gendered) otherwordliness and its obsessive return to the Black ecstatic as the antic form of modernity (5). In the post-Reconstruction era in the United States, it was driven, tortured, punished, burned Black female flesh that provided the manual labor for modern progress and which also did the ideological work of making the modern secular subject.7 This is the very history of castigated flesh that Rev. Webb holds in her hands as she hangs suspended in air, in time, in being, in the world. It is the very history of foundation-laying torture that Obama must reduce to a “single note” to be played again and again in his secular, progress-oriented disavowals of the Black ecstatic. So I begin here to suggest that Black feminist performance—live, recorded, in print—unflinchingly exposes the secular fallacy that Reckson suggests drives the project—the performance—of American realism. Black feminist performance across these forms has also worked at unlocking the very utopic glitch that Jemison, through Webb, through the workings of spirit, effects. Which is to say that Black feminism has a shape that tends toward the ecstatic. Following Reckson, I want to call that shape antic form. I use antic form to refer to the old, used (antique) container giving shape to modernity’s dream of progress, the grotesque and comical gesture giving structure to modernity’s denials and its abiding fantasies of possessive individualism. I also want to suggest that it is the form of Black culture’s own dramas of dis- and re- and pan- and un- and ante-possession, the very dramas to which Realist Ecstasy insistently, generously, returns us.
Reckson suggests that realism, as the central cultural expression of American secular modernity, is a form that fails: while it affords clear-eyed, detailed, disenchanted views of a tumultuous world at the turn of the twentieth century, its self-presentation as a disinterested package of the real is haunted by its occlusions. Secularism was the religious-philosophical logic of Jim Crow modernity providing the general feel—the “modern mood”—of postslavery US social and political formations, including literature (66). Literary realism joined the logic of secularism to the staid and composed form of the American novel. But its occlusions return to realist texts—whether in a scene of frenzy in William Dean Howells’s An Imperative Duty, or as a corpse in Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, whether in the shadows of ethnographic photographs of the Ghost Dance or in the electrifying circulations of religious feeling and racial terror in James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man—to expose the glaring pretensions, which is to say the founding ideological and material violences, of American secular modernity.
Reckson suggests that ecstasy, a being beside the self, is modernity’s the antic form, the disruption that unravels the premise of realist capture—and therefore, of secular modernity, and therefore, of White Being.8 Ecstasy is the antic form destabilizing realism’s very form: realism, with its obsession with “enthusiastic” religion, its traffic in ghosts and corpses, its obsession with boundaries and borders, “was always already a discourse of ecstasy, of life beside itself” (67). Ecstasy, in texts and without, offers not a reprieve from racial terror or an opportunity to transcend the past, or even transcend the self, but rather a transit, a re-situation of the self. “In ecstasy,” Reckson writes, “bodies are transported, seized, possessed” in a way that signals “our being beside” histories of emmiseration and death (234).
If ontology is the study of Being (in which Blackness serves, Calvin Warren suggests, as metaphysics’ means of objectifying and projecting the terror of nothingness),9 what we might call Reckson’s antology is the study of the catching, seizing, frenzy compelled by the spirit, the actual movement, the bodily and more-than-bodily antics, of the question—we may go so far as to insist, the impossibility—of Black being. The antic is the old, played and replayed, animation of what Warren refers to as “black spirit”: that which is anterior to and beside Being, “that which is anagrammatically testified to in the endurance of black existence in the midst of centuries of onticide.”10 In Reckson’s analysis of Anna Julia Cooper’s A Voice From the South, she suggests that this anteontological inspiritedness surfaces as a “radical disenchantment from racist theologies” (44). In her analysis of Frances Harper’s Iola Leroy, Reckson calls attention to the rejoicing, the infectious “general happiness” in Harper’s postslavery church service as “both a knowledge practice and a performance practice, a site of aural and physical transfer rooted in the dynamic repetition across time and across bodies ‘caught’ and (con)scripted by that repetition: a rejoicing with rejoicing” (49). Reckson’s antology allows us to see these literary breaks with the real as Black feminist forms of insurgent enthusiasm, a “rejoicing from within the contested terrain of realist prose” (54). The viral enthusiasm, the always already Black, always already feminized frenzy, surfaces, too, in Reckson’s reading of the virality of touch and belonging in Nella Larsen’s Quicksand. Importantly, Reckson calls attention to Larsen’s modernist use of the comma in her “rhythmic listing” as a form, an antic literary form, of the very Black feminized/feminist enfleshment that unnerves earlier, realist texts.
It is fitting that Reckson’s account of all the things and ghosts and chants and inspirited bodies gnawing at the edges of realism culminates in a brilliant, moving reading of Nella Larsen’s Quicksand, for it is here that Realist Ecstasy returns us to the antic form of Black female/feminist inscription, description, and textual inhabitation. As Reckson allows us to see, there is a Black female/feminist utopic glitch that motors the Black ecstatic. Indeed, the antic form of suspension I referred to above is a mode that can be seen, too, in both Black feminist literature and criticism. This antic suspension—faith leap—is performed, among other ways, as a kind of lectio divina, a spirited, embodied, collective, counterpublic reading practice given to the presumption that the black woman writing gets us beyond what can be empirically known, when the history of subjection written on and through black (female) flesh can never be fully known; and she (us?), through inspired acts of imagination or performances of “tuned sensitivity to that which is alive and therefore cannot be known until it is known,”11 hastens the world to come even as she holds, possesses, is possessed by, the world that has been. If Black women’s literature, performance, and art has striven to make ecstasy the scene of a suspension that effects a utopic glitch in modernity’s straight time, Reckson gives us important, destabilizing case studies to add to a Black feminist canon of ecstasy. That canon includes of course, all of the literary performances that we call upon as evidence that another world is not only possible but already here, alongside the world. (Morrison’s clearing where the “uncalled, unanointed” preacher calls flesh to flesh. Hurston’s pear tree, where the young girl steps into her postslavery desire. The purple in Walker’s field that heliotropes divine immanence. The “deeply female and spiritual plane” in the Word of our Lord. The hands layin on Shange’s anti- ante-secular holiness.) We can see this same antic leap at center of Black feminist inquiry which tends, too, toward the ecstatic, an antic mode of creativity in which Black women artists imagine “something else to be”;12 inspire and bequeath “pedagogies of the sacred”;13 map a “radical Elsewhere” outside of straight time;14 script a “new metaphysics of struggle” through the irruptive representation of the sexual ecstatic;15 scribble out “a radically different text for female empowerment”;16 stay “holding a vigil for all that you can’t leave behind,” transfiguring loss and trauma into “sensuous splendor,”17 and so on. Even after the end of the world, it is the “old, curved brown women everywhere,” Alexis Gumbs writes, who root and hold and stay and suspend, “latch[ing] their chakras to the stars” but also digging underground into “a universe that telescopes had never paused upon.”18
In the capacious canon of the Black feminist ecstatic, antic form takes the shape of suspension, of irreducible difference to the “modern mood,” of what Reckson calls the “unsettling, transfixing, spellbinding persistence of the unintelligible” that unsettles literary realism (3). We could say, then, that it takes on the structure of post-secular or para-secular belief. But it also takes the form of disbelief. In Toni Cade Bambara’s 1974 short story, “The Organizer’s Wife,” for example, the Black woman protagonist beats a preacher man in a “fit” of rage. The protagonist, Virginia, is a cooperative organizer who journeys across her rural town to visit her husband, also an organizer, who is in jail. On her way she stops to visit the town preacher Reverend (“Revun”) Michaels, who has betrayed her husband (accusing him of “disturbing the peace”) and selling the land that houses the church, a co-op school, the co-op’s storage shed, a graphics workshop, and four families that “had lived for generations working the land,” to granite mining company.19 Virginia gets beside herself as she confronts the preacher:
“Did you sell the land as well?” she heard herself saying, rushing in the doorway much too fast. “You might have waited like folks asked you. You didn’t have to. Enough granite under this schoolhouse alone”—she stamped, frightening him—“to carry both the districts for years and years, if we developed it ourselves.” She heard the “we ourselves” explode against her teeth and she fell back.20
When Michaels suggests that it was the Church Board, not he, who “saw fit” to sell the land, Virginia is seized, truly beside herself not with belief but with disbelief:
“Fit!” She was advancing now, propelled by something she had no time to understand. “Wasn’t nuthin fitten about it.” She had snatched the ruler from its hook. The first slam hard against the chair he swerved around, fleeing. The next cracked hard against his teeth. His legs buckled under and he slid down, his face frozen in disbelief. But nothing like the disbelief that swept through her the moment “we ourselves” pushed past clenched teeth and nailed her to the place, a woman unknown. She saw the scene detached, poster figures animated: a hefty woman pursuing a scrambling man in and out among the tables and chairs in frantic games before Jake rang the bell for lessons to commence. (18)
Here, as in the canon of Black feminist ecstasy I referred to above, the radical Black feminist ecstatic is not a mere critique of secular religion, which is premised on a subject who thoughtfully, inwardly consents to a series of rational propositions about God and salvation. It is an embodied, rageful, disbelief which must be performed in advance of understanding. In Bambara’s cosmology, disbelief operates as a generative force of fitfulness. It is antic form: the unwilled bodily animation that calls up an anterior we ourselves in the scrambling, frantic chase, and the enfleshed Word that spills over, explodes against, the protagonist’s teeth. And then the fitful Word knocks Virginia back as it, in all of its urgent, present illegibility, suspends her.
For Reckson, antic refers to the “semantic uncertainty of the body,” a fitfulness that is imagined as the exorbitant mark of racial difference, be it acted out on the minstrel stage or in the frenzied church congregation (70). So when the exclamation “Fit!” breaks the threshold of Virginia’s teeth, it signals what is actually happening—a fit of revenge that shocks Virginia with the unpredictability of a “we ourselves” that ripples into and through her supposedly singular self—and it suggests that there’s a yet-unknown course of action that will follow, that will impossibly redress the sellout preacher’s betrayal. In Bambara’s wordplay, a form of fit, “fitten,” erupts to decry the preacher’s unredeemable mistake in trading modern progress for the cooperative’s counterplanning. “Wasn’t nuthin fitten about it,” Virgina spits. Of course, in Black vernacular, fitten (alternatively, fittin, fixin, fitna, finna) is a verb that belongs to the temporality of transition or suspension, as in “What we fitten to do?” So Virginia’s insistence that the preacher’s selling the land wasn’t “fitten” suggests that it was both an ethical violation and a kind of stasis: a move that would take the folks nowhere. Virginia’s fit of ex-stasis, then, gestures to a meantime collective doing that divests from Judeo-Christian redemption and invests in what “we ourselves” fitten to do, where fitten denotes not the progress of linear time but a lingering, a suspension, a meantimeness that is filled, despite all appearances, with insurgent potential. In an inward conversation that stops short of the rational assent required of the Christian convert (Do you accept Jesus Christ . . . ?), Virginia suggests that she is fitten to pay her husband’s bail, recover her strength, and keep up her garden: “How else to feed the people?” The antic form of Bambara’s story, then, assumes a utopic glitch in time in which the “infinite alternatives to what is” are not in a future far off but are here, beside us, existing, in Crawley’s words, “alongside that which we can detect with our finite sensual capacities.”21 Avery Gordon uses the term “anticipatory consciousness” to mark Bambara’s ecstatic time. In the antics of Bambara’s fiction, of the Black feminist ecstatic in general, there is no “typical utopian scenario,” as Gordon suggests, just “stories of living otherwise with the degradations and contradictions of exploitation, racism, and authoritarianism.”22 The future presses into the present; the we ourselves who are fitten to be presses back. That pressing is the antic form that Realist Ecstasy asks us to consider a fitful, disruptive kernel at the very core of a modern world which can do nothing but deny what it cannot resist.
Barack Obama, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, 1st ed. (New York: Times Books, 1995), 294.↩
Ashon T. Crawley, Blackpentecostal Breath: The Aesthetics of Possibility, illustrated ed. (New York: American Literatures Initiative, 2016), 3.↩
Tina Post, “Joe Louis’s Utopic Glitch,” in Race and Performance after Repetition (Duke University Press, 2020), 104.↩
Osei Bonsu, “Bodies in Translation,” in Sensus Plenior (The Economy of Living Things, chap. 3), ed. Steffani Jemison (Paris: Jeu de Paume, 2017), 11.↩
Antic (n.): 1520s, antick, antyke, later antique (with accent on the first syllable), “grotesque or comical gesture,” from Italian antico “antique,” from Latin antiquus “old, ancient; old-fashioned” (see antique (adj.)). In art, “fantastical figures, incongruously combined” (1540s).↩
Lindsay V. Reckson, Realist Ecstasy: Religion, Race, and Performance in American Literature (New York: New York University Press, 2020), 12.↩
As Sarah Haley suggests, the transition to an industrial economy based on coerced wage or contract labor was “a historical process in which the hierarchy of bodies had to be reconstituted, reconsolidated, and reasserted, and the threat of black political or economic advancement needed to be thwarted.” In this context Black women were criminalized, depicted as “excessive, disfigured, and incorrigible” so that white people could understand/know themselves as modern secular subjects. Sarah Haley, No Mercy Here: Gender, Punishment, and the Making of Jim Crow Modernity, Justice, Power, and Politics (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016), 25.↩
Dylan Rodriguez defines White Being as an ongoing story, continually re-narrated, of aspiration anchoring the dream of white reconstruction through various moments of crisis and counterinsurgency. Dylan Rodríguez, White Reconstruction: Domestic Warfare and the Logics of Genocide, 1st ed. (Fordham University Press, 2020).↩
Calvin L. Warren, Ontological Terror: Blackness, Nihilism, and Emancipation (Durham: Duke University Press, 2018), http://www.oapen.org/download/?type=document&docid=649831.↩
Calvin Warren, “Nihilistic Care (or Residing in the Slippage): Some Divergences between Afro-Pessimism and Black Nihilism,” https://syndicate.network/symposia/theology/ontological-terror/.↩
Barbara Christian, “The Race for Theory,” in African American Literary Theory: A Reader, ed. Winston Napier (New York: New York University Press, 2000), 280–89.↩
Toni Morrison, Sula, reprint (New York: Vintage, 2004), 52; Roderick A. Ferguson, Aberrations in Black: Toward a Queer of Color Critique (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004), 110; Barbara Smith, “Toward a Black Feminist Aesthetic,” in African American Literary Theory: A Reader, ed. Winston Napier (New York: New York University Press, 2000), 482–97.↩
M. Jacqui Alexander, Pedagogies of Crossing: Meditations on Feminism, Sexual Politics, Memory, and the Sacred, Perverse Modernities (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005).↩
Kara Keeling, The Witch’s Flight the Cinematic, the Black Femme, and the Image of Common Sense (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008), 137.↩
L. H. Stallings, Funk the Erotic: Transaesthetics and Black Sexual Cultures, 1st ed. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2015), 236.↩
Hortense J. Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” Diacritics 17.2 (1987) 81.↩
Daphne A. Brooks, Liner Notes for the Revolution: The Intellectual Life of Black Feminist Sound (Harvard University Press, 2021), 257.↩
Alexis Pauline Gumbs, M Archive: After the End of the World (Durham: Duke University Press, 2018), 35, 37.↩
Toni Cade Bambara, “The Organizer’s Wife,” in The Seabirds Are Still Alive, 1st Vintage Books ed., 1982 (New York: Random House, 1974), 16.↩
Bambara, “The Organizer’s Wife,” 18.↩
Crawley, Blackpentecostal Breath, 2.↩
Avery F. Gordon, The Hawthorn Archive: Letters from the Utopian Margins, 1st ed. (New York: Fordham University Press, 2017), 40.↩
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.
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.
1.14.22 | Lindsay Reckson
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.
Elizabeth Freeman, Beside You in Time: Sense Methods and Queer Sociability in the American Nineteenth Century (Durham: Duke University Press, 2019), 12.↩
Freeman, Beside You in Time, 16.↩
Freeman, Beside You in Time, 31.↩
José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (New York: New York University Press, 2009), 186.↩
See Katherine McKittrick, Dear Science and Other Stories (Durham: Duke University Press, 2021).↩
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.↩
On the blackpentecostal enactment of otherwise possibilities, see Ashon Crawley, Blackpentecostal Breath: The Aesthetics of Possibility (New York: Fordham University Press, 2017), 2.↩