Holding Blackness in Suspension: A Study

Curator's Note

This past weekend liquid blackness hosted a symposium, “Holding Blackness in Suspension: The Films of Kahlil Joseph” at Georgia State University that featured several events: a screening of short films and conversation with Kahlil Joseph; paper presentations by hip-hop, cinema, and visual culture scholars; and a gallery exhibition. The weekend also included two working groups discussing the methods and modes of production for liquid blackness research. All of these meetings came together around the around an intentionally ambiguous concept that emerged from Joseph’s films—suspension.

liquid blackness has been attracted to the term “suspension” to describe the surreal atmosphere in Joseph’s films, the way bodies appear suspended across time and space. We spent the weekend thinking about how spatial and temporal ambiguity affects the way blackness is visualized in these works. Regina Bradley addressed the quiet in these films as a space for openness and contemplation, Derek Conrad Murray considered the affective flows in the film that push against the history of black cinematic representation, Kara Keeling responded to expressions of ‘potentiality,’ Gregory Zinman addressed aesthetic shifts initiated by online video aesthetics, and I diagrammed the film’s post-catastrophe imagery. Collectively, we found the lack of narrative closure and the formal discontinuities and the tension that pervades Joseph’s work as a productive ambiguity that allows blackness to appear on screen in ways that keep it "safe" from overdetermination.

It is not hard to see suspension as an aesthetic operating in Joseph’s film, particularly in “Until the Quiet Comes,” but at each meeting during the symposium we returned to this theme in regards to our own scholarship. Unfortunately, identifying suspension in study is much harder. This was a highlight in the weekend for me because we are often asked what we study, but there is so little time to discuss how we study. This distinction is ultimately an ethical concern that is so vitally important for those who study race, who intend to reject the overarching narratives that define and devalue certain bodies without establishing a new set of assumptions. In this week’s posts, we will see more discussion of Joseph’s work and liquid blackness that find their own places to identify suspension as both a concept and a methodology. As a way to connect these posts, I would like to start the week by asking how the scholars featured this week and we, as a collective group, continue to make arguments about blackness and aesthetics that are suspended? And perhaps more importantly, how can we work in a way that is suspended?

I do not already have the answers to these questions, but I would like to offer this theme week on InMediaRes as a step in the right direction by helping us maintain the intellectual energy generated over the weekend and allowing our scholarship to ‘float’ between platforms. I hope this space helps presents some answers and (in the spirit of suspension) even more questions.


Sarah Jane Cervenak's picture

suspensions's definitional multiplicity

Suspension is an interesting word to think about in relation to the interanimations of lived blackness and what J. Kameron Carter and I have thought about together as blackness’ ethereal after/life. That is, a search of the term ‘suspension’ in the Oxford English Dictionary produces a wide array of meanings and contexts; suspension at once refers to a musical practice, where notes are carried over from one chord to another to the suspension of matter in water or some other liquid substance to the termination of work to a particular mechanism essential to (automobile) motion/kinesis.

What is at stake in thinking black life and unfettered black socialities as moving, on the one hand, out of these long traditions of notes carried over, terrible oceanic passage where suspension meant, following Hortense Spillers, being “nowhere at all” into other aquatic and atmospheric spatio temporal inhabitations sustaining innovative forms of being and holding together (72)?

In the first scene of Flying Lotus’s “Until the Quiet Comes” there is a reference to suspension, a prior fall or jump, the precarity of black survival. But at the same time it is important to not forget the bubbles that usher forth the film—mini worlds of air that rush into the water like the floor of a building, the pebbles of a new road, the foundation of another kind of shelter.

Works cited:

Hortense Spillers. “Mama’s Baby/Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book.” Diacritics, Vol. 17, No.2, Culture and Countermemory: The “American” Connection. (Summer, 1987), pp. 64-81: 72

Lauren Cramer's picture

The Bubbles!

Sarah, thank you for your generous response. I think the bubbles are such an interesting point because of the way they emphasizes what is “released” or “made” in suspension— or even better, what “escapes.”

My interest in suspension is exactly the ambiguity you described between movement/stillness and isolation/being together. More specifically, I want to know what alternative spaces, times, materialities are a product of suspension. Because of my interest in architecture, I cannot help but see the complicated balance of suspension producing the appearance of weightlessness, much like the bubbles floating to the surface in the film. On one hand, suspension thus clears space or makes shelter for blackness to float. Of course, I am also weary of what may seem like evacuating blackness of the history that Spillers is recounting. In other words, as your question of “stakes” makes clear, there is a proximity between black liquidity and fungibility—something is always carried over.

I think artists of black visual culture have been making productive use of this tension. But how can scholars do the same? As I try to consider scholarship that makes productive use of suspension, I am again interested in how this week’s online conversation may resemble a change in state (i.e. liquid <—> gas). For example, this weekend we wrote, met, screened, and talked and in this week’s online conversation we’re linking.

Alessandra's picture

Lifting Up

Thank you Lauren and Sarah for your important observations. I want to chime in with yet another possible meaning of suspension as the expression of an ethical attitude, an act of care. The first time I wrote about liquid blackness, I did so through a list of evocative terms which might inspire artists to think of blackness materially, affectively and performatively; as a way of thinking not about what blackness is, but rather all the many things it does. In that context, I used the idea of “holding blackness in suspension” to describe how I believe it should be part of any and all conversations in the humanities, rather than a special topic in some very dedicated environments. In my own scholarly journey this conviction, i.e. the belief that the human is an inescapably racialized concept, is precisely what led me to feel that I too should focus my scholarly attention precisely on blackness, and to ask: “What happens when blackness is deliberately held in suspension, by the critical act one might perform in attempting to understand its contours? What if we could think of it, not as an attribute, but rather in its own terms…?“ In other words I tried to think of blackness as something infinitely precious but also ultimately profoundly fragile, like a newborn one might hold perhaps with just one hand, perhaps up-high into the sky, and yet with an immensely attentive care.

Not too long ago I suddenly remembered where I might have gotten this image from. It was the scene in Fruitvale Station (Coogler, 2013) when Oscar Grant’s mother, played by Octavia Spencer, asks her dying son’s friends to “lift him up.” What Kahlil Joseph’s films present for us, as was observed at the Q&A with the artist, are environments where there is danger, but not death, vulnerability but not destruction, environments imbued with a quasi-metaphysical beauty that keeps, at least philosophically or aesthetically, all and every body ultimately safe.

Sarah Jane Cervenak's picture

unanswering questions of study

thinking about both Lauren and Alessandra’s questions about study…—I guess I’ve been thinking alot in relation to Erin Manning’s new work The Minor Gesture where she thinks about method in relation to the “anarchic share of existence.” She writes, “method stops potential on its way, cutting into the process before it has had a chance to fully engage with the complex relational field the process itself calls forth.” (34) I think much of life eludes method even as I don’t want to discount the project of reimagining methodological comportment as ethical interest, care. So in that way, maybe the holding between mother and son in Fruitvale station shouldn’t bespeak a transferable practice but rather harbor its own “anarchic share.” Does that make sense?

Work cited:

Erin Manning. The Minor Gesture. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016.

Benedict stork's picture

Suspension as (anti)method

First, what a terrific post and conversation! I wanted to briefly respond to/build on Alessandra’s suggestion—insistence?—that blackness be a part of the humanities as such. I think this is essential to any truly critical and radical humanities, though it also carries significant risks in terms of how such thought enters and moves through this discourse; i.e. who and how it is taken up. Not sure exactly how to mitigate these risks (of appropriation, of territorializing, of commodification for institutional promotion) but it is worth the risk. (I suppose the simple answer is diligence and care but….)

One place that I can see blackness and suspension entering and opening up scholarly and critical work is via the aesthetic. In too many ways conceptual and critical thought/writing has distanced itself from its aesthetic dimension (understood as an embrace and arrangement of sense and sensual experience) yet this seems to be there in black studies. In the work of Spillers, Moten, Robin D.G. Kelly, Wehiliye, or Hartman, is a form of immanent critique that is different from what, for instance, someone like Adorno produces. Their writing does not shy away from sense and an affective relations/relationality and instead feels driven by it. This scholarly writing, this expression of an embodied thought, might be understood as suspended between the critical and the affective, challenging any residue of an opposition between them. In this suspension is the possibility of dwelling with complexity in a way that refuses or holds in abeyance—without wholly abandoning—the ordering and orderly conventions of academic discourse.

Sadly I’ve not seen enough of Joseph’s work to comment on how these different forms might encounter each other. My hope would be that a resonance might carry through them in such a way that raises questions about the ethical and political stakes of art and scholarship as aesthetic fields.


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