A collaboration between the Critical Poetics Research Group and Nottingham Contemporary, featuring international guest speakers, the Five Bodies series of critical-creative workshops provides a new platform for debate, collaboration and innovation, exploring the relationship between creative and critical theory and practice.
In this piece, writer and musician Jeremy Stewart reflects on how Simone’s White’s recent workshop ‘On Surrounding’ has shaped his thoughts on music, poetics and spiritual experience.
It was an extraordinary privilege to participate in Simone White’s workshop ‘On Surrounding,’ which gave me a lot to think (and write) about. White opened by speaking about how critical poetics resolves academic questions around knowing and poetry, characterizing poetics as ‘how the thing got made.’ To give the workshop participants a chance to introduce themselves, and to get us writing, White asked us to ‘tell the story of how you realized something critical could only happen in a poetic region, or vice versa.’ This exercise inspired a reflection on the philosophical Law of Identity, which is part of the fundamental basis for formal logic:
consumed by love & by grief
resolved that in a mode of rejoicing
as witness to a miracle
that will only happen once poetry is to me
expressing this in a form where A
is never only A but no one
demands that A=A because both
have been overshadowed
The Law of Identity is the logical rule that dictates that a thing is identical with itself. In this fragment of a poem I follow a current of thought, with Heraclitus, that rejects the Law of Identity, on the grounds that a real thing is never self-identical because when we identify a thing, it’s always a reduction. To insist on a stable identification is to cut each ineffable thing from its irreducible reality. In its fidelity to the particular, poetry allows the thing itself to mean more than anything that could be said about it, while what is said becomes its own new thing with its own intrinsic value. Or, at least, such was the substance of my meditation.
When I use the word ‘overshadowed’ in the preceding fragment, I am thinking of the word as it is used in the gospels, when the angel tells Mary that ‘the power of the Most High will overshadow you’ (Luke 1:35 NRSV): an ultimate power supersedes the rules of reality as they are understood. In my fragment, something overshadows the demand for logical order; whether the thing doing the overshadowing is poetry, or some ineffable reality, remains ambiguous. This precise ambiguity is, for me, ‘something critical [that] could only happen in a poetic region, or vice versa’—the ‘or’ does not eliminate the other possibility but shows how it modulates the critical and the poetic by turns. The refusal to impose an artificial separation of the critical and the poetic submits each of these registers to a higher order of (poetic and critical) reality.
After the introductory exercise, White then offered a brief but illuminating discussion of her own project on critical poetics – one that involves the hip hop music style known as ‘trap.’ She discussed the theme of freedom in terms of the conversation on Black liberation in the United States and its cultural expression in music. White spoke of Fred Moten and the drive towards freedom; Nathaniel Mackey discussing Black music as an ideal possibility, always through the lens of jazz; and Amiri Baraka’s idea that jazz is transcendental. White’s assessment was that, given the status of jazz music in popular culture, its critics and theorists are no longer ‘leading the conversation.’ To explore themes of freedom, ideality, and transcendence in a way that is relevant to her own experience, White turns her attention to trap music, exemplified by the ‘mumble rap’ artist Chief Keef.
Jazz music has been of immense importance to me as a listener and a musician, and the music is inseparable in my mind from an understanding of the music. By this I mean that, for me, how one conceives of the music—in terms of musical structure, performance decisions, and as cultural intervention—powerfully conditions what may be heard. When I hear jazz, I’m listening for ‘how the thing got made,’ which is clearly not just an artistic inquiry, but a historical and social one. For years, I’ve been turning over in my head a panel discussion that took place at Bennington College, Vermont, in 1964. One of the panelists was the profoundly important jazz pianist Cecil Taylor. In this conversation, Taylor makes a powerful argument for jazz music as inseparable from Black experience, for its genesis and continuance:
I’m saying that people who are enmeshed in situations of subjugation and have to live, have to find ways to project their dignity as human beings – in spite of all the efforts of those around them to degrade them – I’m saying that this music is the manifestation of the dignity in the life that has always been present.
Looking back to 1964 from 2021, it’s difficult not to hear jazz in the context of its retreat to the status of a conservatory art, regardless of incontestable successes in retaining its vital challenge. The reality of Black experience is greater than any attempt to reduce it to a question of contemporary relevance. Nor can the diffusion of jazz music through the world subtract anything from the transformative glory of its expression of Black experience; one demanding question, which I will not try to answer here, might be to ask whether that diffusion can add anything to it. Trap music, meanwhile, certainly fulfills the promise of a music like Taylor describes – manifesting ‘the dignity in the life that has always been present’ – and, through ‘how the thing got made,’ as much as by its sheer sonics, does so against the backdrop of the Black American struggle as it is lived in the 21st century.
In the examples White shared with us, trap music seemed to me to intersect with the workshop’s thematic notion of ‘surrounding’ through its sonic phenomenon of invisibly filling the space the audience already occupies with irrefutable waves of bass. This musical experience dramatizes the unstable separation of being from the situation of being. The reading White gave us from Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari suggested the potential to critically represent the experience of trap music through the figure of strata and the contiguity of strata. I might suggest of Deleuze and Guattari that they are not concerned with the provenance of an ontological speculation, but instead with its applicability to a real problem – in this case, to represent the possibility of freedom through being overwhelmed by the invisible force of music.
With the idea of a critical-poetic ‘overshadowing’ in mind, the last question I asked White pertained to the contrast of jazz music and trap music as spiritual experiences. I spoke of a time in 2012 when I had attended a performance that was part of the Harlem Jazz Shrines festival in New York, an event with a reverent, implicitly spiritual framing, if not a particularly doctrinaire one. That year, the entire series was conceived as a tribute to Cecil Taylor, who was present. Amiri Baraka, too, was present, and read his poems in a performance with the pianist-composer Amina Claudine Myers. I was there in the audience with my wife, who was several months pregnant with our first child at the time, and during part of the performance she squeezed my hand, leaned in close, and said into my ear ‘the baby is hearing all of this!’ In the workshop with White, I described this concert in terms of jazz as a spiritual experience – and foolishly imagined I had contrasted this with the experience of trap music, which, as White immediately (and of course, correctly) pointed out, indeed, could also be a spiritual experience – albeit a ‘scary’ one, as she said.
Remembering White’s question about how I ‘realized something critical could only happen in a poetic region,’ I might now be figuring out what she meant about trap as a spiritual experience. I see in trap an implacable kind of freedom for the listener in the immensity of sound, and a shared loss of personal identity (and paradoxical, collective recovery) within the audience. Perhaps it may be said of trap’s poetics that in such an audience, the law of identity has been suspended: no one demands that A=A, because the terms in which such an identification could have taken place have been overshadowed by a superordinate reality. But if we have thus understood the artistic means by which the instability of identity might be represented, do we have a sense of their critical possibilities for transforming reality?
My impulse is to give the last word to Cecil Taylor – again from that panel discussion, in response to a question from an audience member – and in the last sentence, when he says the word ‘jazz,’ let’s allow it be read at the same moment as ‘trap’:
When I stand here and say that there are certain things I want clarified, the first reaction is hostility, the first reaction is a feeling of guilt. And why is it guilt, what’s bothering you? I’m not going to lynch you, I’m not going to kill you and I’m not going to brainwash you. I’m going to ask you to accept me on MY TERMS, on my terms. I’m asking you to accept me on my terms because I am standing and I have experienced certain things that I want to be evaluated on historical facts, and I say as long as history books in America don’t give us that historical fact… You use the word theoretical – and it is not a matter of theory. My life is a matter of being of really, of, of, of, existence. I have to put up with your magnanimous nature. Why can’t I grant you what you are granting me? Nothing is granted me, nothing is granted me. The only thing is granted me is that which I work for – and they don’t grant me, I take it, I make it. That’s the whole point: the jazz musician has taken Western music and made of it what he wanted to make of it.
I thank Becky Cullen for her meditation on time and the Door-to-Door Salesman of Doom, which takes its occasion from the Five Bodies workshop with Johanna Hedva ‘On Doom.’ Thanks also to Stuart Parker, Jonathon Wilcke, and Stanley Zappa for their reflections.
Fred Moten, In the Break: The Aesthetics of Black Radical Tradition (University of Minnesota Press, 2003).
Nathaniel Mackey, Discrepant Engagement: Dissonance, Cross-Culturality and Experimental Writing (Cambridge University Press, 1993).
Amiri Baraka and William J. Harris, The LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka Reader (Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1991).
Cecil Taylor, Panel Discussion, Bennington College, 1964. Transcribed by Matt Weston. http://www.mattweston.com/cecilpanel.html
Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, Trans. Brian Massumi (University of Minnesota Press, 1987).
The Harpercollins Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version, Including the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books (San Francisco, HarperCollins, 1993).
Jeremy Stewart is a writer and musician. His experimental novel In Singing, He Composed a Song is forthcoming in September 2021 from the University of Calgary Press. Stewart won the 2014 Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Poetry for Hidden City (Invisible). He is also the author of (flood basement (Caitlin 2009). His writing has appeared in Canadian Literature, Lemon Hound, Open Letter, and elsewhere. Stewart is an Associate Lecturer in Creative Writing and a PhD student in English Literature at Lancaster University, UK, working a project entitled “I, Daniel: Dream-Reading Jacques Derrida’s ‘Envois.’” He once dropped a piano off a building.