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Fred Moten, Black and Blur, (Vol. 1. consent not to be a single being)

Christine Okoth

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1Fred Moten, Black and Blur, (Vol. 1. consent not to be a single being)

2Duke University Press, 2017. Pp.360. ISBN 978-0-8223-7016

3Christine Okoth, University of Warwick

  • 1 Fred Moten and Stefano Harney, "The University and the Undercommons: Seven Theses," Social Text, 22 (...)

4To many, the scholar and poet Fred Moten is best known as one of the authors of the manifesto The Undercommons (2013), co-written with Stefano Harney who was once Deputy Director of the School of Business and Management at Queen Mary, University of London. Moten and Harney’s poetic critique of the university began circulating widely in its original essay form in the early aughts and included eminently quotable sub-headings like “The Only Possible Relationship to the University Today Is a Criminal One” and eery predictions about the university’s aims to “rid itself, like capital in general, of the trouble of labor.”1 Though the essay and its book-length counterpart refer to logistics, management, and infrastructure, its readers likely remember The Undercommons for its commitment to the vocabulary of Black studies. From a citational field that includes Ruth Gilmore and CLR James, Moten and Harney distilled a set of terms that now define a discipline; fugitivity, abolition and, of course, study. Together, these terms generate a stream of questions that will and should haunt those of us working in academic spaces. How does one leave the confines of the institution and its regulations? What would it mean to practice study in a manner directly opposed to the project of the university? And what is the form of criticism without the structural demands of the journal and the monograph?

5Readers of Moten’s recently published trilogy of theoretical writings – Black and Blur (2017), Stolen Life (2018), and The Universal Machine (2018) – will do well to remember these questions as they make their way through the poet-critic’s dexterous and encyclopaedic writings on art and philosophy. In Black and Blur Moten is sometimes accompanied by John Coltrane and Theodor Adorno, familiar figures from his earlier work In the Break (2003). The latter is a sparring partner more than a friend. Moten declares that he is “reading with and against Adorno – which is to say listening to and for the sound that works in and against him” (118). The two are worthy opponents; Moten’s account of jazz, the phonograph, and recording technologies is as generative as Adorno’s is bleak. But for all the stylistic consistencies, Black and Blur is an altogether more virtuosic exercise in Black study and Black thought than the earlier writings. The book’s twenty-five chapters are of various lengths and rarely acknowledge the presence of a reader. Many are meditations rather than essays and all begin and end unexpectedly, as though Moten followed the directions of his objects and let them guide his responses. As the form of the text shifts so too does the writer’s linguistic register. Sometimes, Moten is funny as is the case in his reading of the art collective Fluxus and Benjamin Patterson’s Lick Piece. Here, he asks “Does too much whipped cream make you gag?” (138) to conclude a paragraph that emulates the improvisatory impetus of the art object. Other times, he is hopeful about the potential for “renewing the antiprofessional profession and professorate of deviance” (185). In moments like these, readers might catch themselves imagining the possibility of upheaval and an end to the dire conditions under which many academics now labour. If the work leaves an overall impression, it might best be described in terms of abundance and abandon. Here is a theorist who has taken the liberties that come with fame and directed them towards the undoing of the academic monograph’s calcified form.

6Black and Blur’s most illuminating reading takes place in the chapter on the work of social practice artist Theaster Gates. Gates, who works in Chicago, Illinois, is trained in urban planning and many of his works consider the relationship between architecture and race. In Black and Blur, two of Gates’s projects receive particular attention, The Dorchester Projects and Plate Convergence. Plate Convergence involved Gates repurposing a set of 50 clay plates to act as both dining-china and art installation material. The Dorchester Project is an ongoing work in which Gates buys and rebuilds abandoned houses in Chicago’s South Side with the funds generated from artworks made from these houses’ scrap materials. Gates has effectively constructed a system of radical redistribution in which money generated on the international art market funds community projects in the black neighbourhoods of his hometown. Though Gates’s work is firmly situated in the United States and Chicago in particular, Moten reads him as a theorist of “the extra-American blackness of certain blacks in Chicago” (162). Moten arrives at a similar conclusion in his writing on jazz bassist Charles Mingus, a musician that derided calypso music for its lack of temporal markers but who Moten here reads as someone whose music is “after the discrepant drive of the international” (96). In so doing, Moten harks back to a question that percolates around the body of Black and Blur regarding the status of American hegemony. This effort to read American Blackness as international stands alongside Moten’s commitment to conceiving of Blackness itself as global.

7As part of this gesture, Black and Blur begins not in the United States but in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. Here, Moten spends time with the ghostly presence of Patrice Lumumba, the Congolese revolutionary whose assassination was likely orchestrated by U.S., Belgian, and British secret service operatives. Lumumba takes up his place in Black and Blur’s archive of black artistry by way of a conversation between painter Tshibumba Kanda Matulu and anthropologist Johannes Fabian. With these discursive fragments, Moten searches for the remnants of Lumumba or what he calls “Lumumba’s spirit” and “the spirit of a postcolonial future” (19). The conjuring of Lumumba serves as a reminder of those radical political projects that preceded Moten’s ongoing experiments.

8The tone in this opening chapter at times veers on the elegiac and it is fitting that this same atmosphere is replicated in the final sections of Black and Blur. Once Moten begins speaking to his friend José Muñoz, the theorist of queer performance who passed away in 2013, Black and Blur feels like a private moment that the reader is intruding on. It is not clear where Moten’s anticipation of a moment “when [he] can stop talking to you and start talking with you” is directed but one is left hoping that his invitation to “go on a whole other listening walk” (261) is an invitation to his reader. These chapters are also the book’s most poetically evocative pages where Moten describes Detroit as “the kind of hypercapitalist, decapitalized, and decapitated anticapital of white flight” (208) and writes sentences like “Blackness is our everyday romance” (279). The latter could have been lifted from a lyric, an unbridled declaration of love for Blackness and the collective project of Black study. Which is to say that, though Black and Blur sometimes engages in strategies of retreat and introspection, the conversations staged within it are a multi-vocal, participatory event.

9It is fitting then that the source of the trilogy’s title is a conversation. As Moten explains in Black and Blur’s acknowledgments, the phrase consent not to be a single being was uttered by the Martiniquan intellectual Édouard Glissant in a 2009 interview with Manthia Diawara. The interview took place on a ship – the Queen Mary II – which was on its way from Southampton to New York. Glissant, who explains that heart problems prohibit him from flying, contemplates the ship’s significance to the foundational multiplicity of African diasporic cultures. It is this multiplicity that Moten invokes as the overarching theme for his trilogy’s project of constructing a capacious theory of Black study

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1 Fred Moten and Stefano Harney, "The University and the Undercommons: Seven Theses," Social Text, 22.2 (2004), 101–15. p.104.

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Christine Okoth, « Fred Moten, Black and Blur, (Vol. 1. consent not to be a single being) », European journal of American studies [Online], Reviews 2020-1, Online since 04 May 2020, connection on 09 July 2020. URL :

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