Video: Fred Moten: Note on a Blue Note in The Gospel of Barbecue

October 27, 2020
Fred Moten
Fred Moten photographed by Robert Adam Mayer for Harvard Magazine.

Fred Moten, a 2020 MacArthur Fellow, discussed a poem called "On Listening to the Two-Headed Lady Blow Her Horn," which is from Honorée Fanonne Jeffers's extraordinary collection, The Gospel of Barbecue

He talked—in the wake and under the influence of Manolo Callahan, J. Kameron Carter, Ruby Sales and Frank Stewart—about how the disruption of the metaphysics of sovereignty which the physics of the barbecue undertakes is held, and held open, and released in Jeffers's rich musicality. After failing properly to analyze a musicality that defies analysis, he invited participants to join him in trying to join Jeffers in the incalculable rhythm she lays down, which blurs the line between blur and blue, intoned time and pitch, in the interest of a general, insovereign insurgency.

In October 2020, Moten was named a MacArthur Fellow. This year there were 21 winners of the "genius awards" given by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. MacArthur Fellows receive a sum of $625,000 each to use any way they choose. "Moten's diverse body of work coheres around a relentless exploration of sound and its importance as a medium of Black resistance and creativity," reads his MacArthur Fellow profile.

Fred Moten teaches in the Department of Performance Studies in the Tisch School of the Arts, New York University. His fields are black studies, poetics and critical theory and his special concern is the entanglement of social movement and aesthetic experiment. His latest book, written with Stefano Harney, is All Incomplete (Minor Compositions / Autonomedia, 2020). 


My name is Charles Stang, and I'm the director here at the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard Divinity School. We're honored to have with us this evening the poet, philosopher, and critical theorist, Fred Moten, for a talk entitled "Note on a Blue Note in the Gospel of Barbecue."

It's been quite a week for Fred Moten. For those of you who don't know, he was recently named a 2020 MacArthur fellowship-- a fellow. Pardon me. And he received the Truman Capote Award from the University of Iowa, all in the space of this past week. So, Fred, we're very grateful for your time during what I'm sure is a crazy time for you. Speaking of time, we have only an hour together, and so I will keep my remarks very brief in hopes that there will be time for Q&A.

Fred is the first speaker this year in the center's ongoing series on poetry, philosophy, and religion, which is now in its fourth year. The series aims to explore the porous boundaries between poetry, philosophy, and religion, which have had a tense but productive relationship from antiquity until today. And we decided to explore these boundaries and border lands first and foremost from the perspective of poets, living poets.

Fred Moten hardly needs an introduction, but I will give him one, a brief one because I'm sure you're here to hear him, not me. He teaches in the Department of Performance Studies in the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. His fields of inquiry include Black Studies, poetics, and critical theory, and his special concern is the entanglement of social movement and aesthetic experiment.

His books are almost too many to list. He's the author of a brilliant trilogy entitled Consent Not to be a Single Thing, which includes "Black and Blur", "Stolen Life", and "The Universal Machine". He and Stefano Harvey have co-authored a number of books, including the influential collection of essays entitled The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study. He and Harvey have a new book coming out entitled All Incomplete.

Fred is also, of course, a very accomplished poet. His most recent book of poems is The Service Porch, and his 2014 book of poems, The Feel Trio, was awarded the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. I could go on, but I won't because, like you, I'm eager to hear from him. So please join me now in welcoming Fred Moten to the center.

Thank you very much. Charlie, I appreciate it. It's an honor to be there or to be somewhat there with all of you. And I'm especially happy to have a chance to try to begin to approach the work of such a great writer as Honorée Fanonne Jeffers. So thank you for joining me this evening. What I have is pretty short. It's really just a trifle, and I have to already apologize because one of the things that I promised to do, a couple of things that I promise to do in the description of the talk I wasn't quite able to do yet although I'm still working on it.

And that's to touch on the work of the great theologian and historian of religion, J. Kameron Carter, and also the work of the great photographer, Frank Stewart. I'm still working my way up to that, and I'll try to do so at a later date. Anyway, with that said, the title of this talk has changed slightly. And in lieu of talking a little bit about J. and Frank, I do want to say a little bit about and also share a little bit of the wonderful music of Matana Roberts, which I'll do a little later.

Anyway, the title is slightly changed. Now it's called "Notes from a Blue Note in the Gospel of Barbecue". The gospel of barbecue is spread as aroma, which is material hint of forgiveness of what is foretold in the evangelical dispersions of gathered smoke.

The barbecue is, as Zora Neale Hurston says, and as Honorée reminds us, not of this world. What if it's not only not of this but not of any other world either? What if the barbecue is not of world at all, which is not simply to say that it is heavenly but that it is cosmically and cosmologically earthy in being all but earthly in its grounded grounding with moving, feeling, real, surreal, an ethereally vaporous nonlocality.

Smoke is like music in this regard. It's stubbornly attached to, is all but in love with its disappearance. As Eric Dolphy says at the end of his last album, when you hear music after it's over, it's gone in the air. You can never capture it again. It's just that air is already there, or deeper still, that there is already gone, all up in the music as music shape and shaping, as the nothing around which it forms and which surrounds it. There's something deep about all of this gathering and clearing in the life of the poor in spirit who are poor in the world.

So here is one of my very, very favorite poems. Honorée's "On Listening to the Two-headed Lady Blow Her Horn". She don't sing high and can't scat worth a damn either, but she breathes roots into all manner of things. Have you hopping like a toad frog into your next life. All manner of things. Yes. Rain and thunder. All that. But you ain't prayed in so long. Why bother with fancy now? Once you found out who God was, it ain't good to you no more. I know. Loving any woman is such hard work. Uh-huh. Tough.

See her moving down that mother of pearl, the mute trailing bones. There it is. Now listen. The duende wind. I know. It's as if there were something all but infinite before and after and all through these words. Can there be a pause that is in and of something from way before it starts? Before is way back, what is up ahead, too, which further complicates with further aeration this poem of soft starts and sharp turns.

Now, before I get started or maybe even in place of my getting started, I have to tell you that for a few years I've been serially ready to give up poetry. I've been feeling like poetry and art more generally has been, as Jackie Wilson used to say, dogging us around. If I've been ready to give it up, it's because it seems like it keeps breaking its promises. But maybe it was me breaking mine. Either way, poetry keeps giving me back the single life I thought I'd surrender to it. There's a doubleness in surrender, an act of will made against or in spite of one's will. It's given in how I am given these last few mornings to putting on Donny Hathaway's rendition of giving up when I get up.

I want to give up, but giving up won't let me. My surrender seems like a little sacrament even though I'm ambivalent about this great getting-up I give myself because I can't believe now in the Resurrection that poetry and more specifically black poetry tends to prophesy. What if the vision of another world that poetry is said to bear is just the image that confirms that what we cannot bear is the very idea of world?

What if all that's promised is a deadly, deathly, endlessly rewarding equilibrium wherein we sustain ourselves in the perpetual reform of the unsustainable? These questions are all the more haunting because at the beginning and at the end of the day, as Donny says, giving up is hard to do. I try and I try, and it just ain't no use. I can't let go of measure, which is just so immeasurably beautiful. I can't free myself of this romance of mere distances, which is an experience of swarmed unknowing, a way of cloud and care that swerves and spreads out into plane, in continual extension that's always beside the point in being always beside itself.

Poetry is overwhelming and overwhelming is a practice, as Honorée shows so clearly in silence's visual arrangement. Her graphic score of space and spacing through which flavored spirit drifts in disappearance. This is what duende wind, which is common wind, feels like. It smells like the material spirit, the animateriality of her blown horn. What does it sound like? It sounds like Matana Roberts' "All Things Beautiful".


Friday. God forgive me, and help me get myself straight. Those sounds. Between moments of silence I could see bright light, and the movement of some kind of ritual. They were all wearing those strange hoods over their heads again. I could smell the smell of those embers as strong as I stand here today, flaming, shining, bright. I've never been so frightened before or since. Mama told me to hide. Those voices of those loud men getting ever more ferocious, it seemed. And sometime later, Mama dashed in and told me to run, to run towards our heavenly place. That was code for our favorite giant poplar tree not far from where Emma Jean's white play cousin would call the wicked side of town.

It was so big and majestic. Mama used to say it could touch the stars beyond even the devilish of moons. So I ran and I ran and I ran and I ran and ran til I, til I couldn't run no more. I am a child of the wind. Even daddy said so. We used to race, and I would always win. And he'd say, run, baby, run. Run like the wind. That's it. The wind. Memory is a most unusual thing.

Saturday. Well, dearie, I'm just living. No excitement nor entertainment. May God's blessings be with us through the night. All's well that ends well so I've heard. I wish I could feel myself again. I am a child of the wind. Even daddy said so. We used to race, and I would always win. And he'd say run, baby, run. Run like the wind. That's it. The wind. Memory is the most unusual thing.

It sounds like Matana Roberts' "All Things Beautiful" because double-headedness comes as one on beauty, the other one on terror, two statements in braid together. At the opening of every song of praise, which is a cry of pain, which makes the music tastes so good as it cooks and burns because the soloist is more plus less than one as we meet in our heavenly place on Earth at the poplar tree in the Church of the Bush Harbor, where they be talking about where does it hurt like Ruby Sales.

Running like the wind to stand against the wind. Running like a gift of spirit, an unworldly aural of congregational air, charismata against the long wind of preacherly charisma and the cold wind of anti-Blackness. The barbecue is a supper that's neither first nor last. George Herbert says that love says you must sit down and taste my meat.

In my neighborhood love's name was Lillian Rhodes, but Sergeant Rhodes, her husband, called her precious. And when she said sit down, we sat and ate, and as she said, if our faces were greasy, she knew it was good. It's not that we didn't pray before we ate. It's just that in her cooking, in her earth and breath, pleroma by way of aroma turned to fleshy, fleshly charismata. Divine power became animaterial gift.

Was it that the bones she served were so good that God wasn't good to us no more? From the perspective this question prompts and within which it tarries but always seems like a sin but more and deeper and maybe even more repetitively original than that, more like another fall of man or fall to man, is the separation from though it is always only in the barbecue though being in and not from makes it no less fatal or faithful.

From Manolo Callahan, the barbecue is a practice of resistance. It is what it is for the poor to be against the sovereign and against regulation, even in the precision of its thoughtful protocols. Like Baby Suggs' cathedral in the woods, which Roberts and Sales beautifully described, the feast of the senses is held there, in praise of flesh, in the constant aftermath of its violation, its brutal bodily inscription.

But to say that in Roberts' and Sales' and Toni Morrison's wake is to consider the necessary overlap or palimpsest or overdub of the phrases war of conquest and war on subsistence. Callahan insists within the context of our necessary understanding of the long duration of this two-headed war that we are winning. And it's not that he's not right. It's that this war's genocidal attrition is absolute. In this war, we will have lost everything. We will have had to give up everything, too, which must mean that victory is given and that we are not reducible to everything, that all is not the same as everything or everyone.

Now, how do we find a way to talk about that? Can poetry's concern with this world and its others approach this earthy, airy, fleshy, all and nothing, which is outside the economy of loss and redress or the lost and found? I know that what I'm saying sounds kind of dreamy. Worse than that, it's cold-hearted, too. You might think of it as a kind of wartime mysticism. To expect to lose everything is not to sanction the loss or deny its brutality. It's actually to approach a more accurate accounting of the brutality.

That they will kill every one of us while never killing us all might be past poetry's reach, but our winning is in that margin. What we mourn is what Jasbir Puar might call this continual maiming. Every day we celebrate a mass for that in our gathering, in our assembly, and in the sharing of our needs and the practice of our obligations, our cargo, which we bear even in the murderousness of this war so that we are always militantly for all of us even more than we are against every one of them.

In Catholic school, my religion teacher spoke longingly of the mystical body, in a way that always seemed to speak to his desire for the physical body of the mentor who related to him a revelation that being private he couldn't have. But here and now let's consider instead the mysticism of the barbecue, which is given in practice as the practice of a general and a formative strike that bears and continually regenerates our knowledge of who we are, for lack of better terms.

If, as Bertrand Russell says, metaphysics is the attempt to conceive the world as a whole by means of thought, then the barbecue and the gospel of barbecue is an experiment in anti-metaphysics. It's not that this experiment is not thoughtful. It's just that it's flavorful, too, and flavor doesn't so much put thought in its place but rather works in and with thought's placelessness, its displacement, as Amiri Baraka all but says.

How do displacement and carceral duress impact the places where we stay, in the common life we lead, in what Sandi Hilal and Alessandro Petti call permanent temporaryness. There's a hard, preferential option for the poverty of insovereignty, for the poor in spirit we have to make, which art wants to bear but which art also seems to belie in being preacherly, in standing over and against movement, as Sales might say.

Have artists, have poets become the preachers of the movement? How can we bear that swarming, frenzied, choral, common, two-headed, ladylike thing that blows through Honorée in her having become instrument, her having given up artistic self-possession for that shared aesthetic dispossession that comes when, as Marx says, the senses of theoreticians in their practice.

Maybe the barbecue is anti-metaphysical in its refusal of the marriage of thought and conception, a marriage that seems elemental to the instantiation and exercise of kingly power in so far as it constitutes something like the ground for what might be called the reproduction of the very idea of origin. The general strike, the general barbecue is how we practice earth, how we make a path by walking in obvious pilgrimage, as Ivan Illich, Myles Horton, and Paolo Freire might say when they get together to jam or cook.

Meanwhile, our wartime mysticism is our understanding of this war's persistence and the necessity of our practice, our grounding, our sharing against it, and of how we defend what we do in the practice of it against the brutality of their attempts to steal, regulate, objectify, and destroy it all at once. We have to give up everything this war imposes upon us, as necessity, as reward, as object of desire, in favor of all we do, in favor of all, as our common practice, in its disruption of the relay between sovereign and subject, in rule of what is surveyed, and their object, which is given in their brutally single mind as the world and all the things that make up the world.

The renewal of our habits of assembly have to do with this enactment of all against everything, which is what they take from us and at the same time is what we must give up. That's what it is to refuse what has been refused to us in favor, in a preferential option for what we share, which is the wealth of our common need. The poor in spirit are the ones who share in refusal of ownership. That's the general strike, that mutual aid and air and ain't is a mutual refusal. To all this, Honorée says, I know.

What's a blue note? They say a blue note is sung or played at a different pitch than what is said to be standard within the frame of normative tonality. It might be thought of as a microtonal eruption or interruption, which puts regular, emphatically irresolute or dissolute or absolute pressure on the standard, making a dissonant swerve that is simultaneously into and out of a tonality or pan tonality, as if all the notes are held in the non notes that are in between the notes so that not in between is just a way of mispronouncing everywhere.

All the notes will have been given by one who can't scat worth a damn, her rooted, rootless, rerouted, and rerouting breath of roots animating all manner of things with all things beautiful and terrible. But what if the blue note is unheard music in the midst of music, a hole at the center of the hole, a hole where a world is supposed to be maybe or maybe a hole which is no thing but is all airy, earthly nothingness sharing, differing inseparably, insovereignly, like unhoused birds?

Matana Roberts has a three-part, two-headed song called Birdhouse, which she and fellow saxophonist, Fred Anderson share like John Gilmore and Clifford Jarvis share wind blowing in from Chicago. And I'm thinking of all the turbulence they're blowing makes in order to imagine the stillness around which it's organized because it's that stillness, that unheard music at the music's heart which blows through the chorus of two-headed ladies so that there's a stillness in the middle that blows through and surrounds, a houseless refusal of mastery from which some monstrous duende casa is derived, like a bad thought invading an otherwise good trip.

See her moving down, that mother of pearl, the mute trailing bones. Still in the middle just won't stay home, which is why loving her is such hard work. Still's microtonal agitation is even harder to take when still takes no tone but simply prepares a table of soulful, silent feasts for them. The sweet swing of the unheard is hard to talk about. The critics would-be mastery, which will have aligned somehow with the poet's erstwhile sovereignty is undone by the feel of the unheard, it's blue and smoky rasp. That's the gospel of barbecue. That's what Honorée serves us up every day in this beautiful book, and that's what she serves most especially in that beautiful poem. Thanks for listening, and now maybe we can have a discussion about it.

Thank you, Fred. Before you even started speaking, we had a little number in the Q&A, which is Honorée, herself, weighing in to say hello. I just wanted to say hello to Fred and thank him for lecturing about my poetry, so welcome, Honorée. Thank you so much for joining us although it's hard for me to formulate these questions because I found myself just trying to cling to these phrases of yours, and just as I was holding one in mind, another would come on its tail.

But one that really leapt out at me was this-- I may not have it exactly right, but-- killing every one of us but not all of us. Something about the margin between those two phrases. Could you say more about what you mean by that margin between every one of us but not all of us?

Well, it was kind of connected to something that I guess I've been thinking about pretty deeply for the past five or six years, and I should say very much under the influence of and also maybe chafing in some ways against the influence of a body of thought that is now called Afro-pessimism, and that means the work of a bunch of people, I would say, most obviously Frank Wilderson and Jared Sexton but also people like Zakiyyah Iman Jackson and Patrice Douglass and Calvin Warren, and a lot of people, who particularly like Warren, I would say, have interesting sort of interventions to make in the general discourse of ontotheology.

And by foregrounding the term anti-blackness-- I won't say inventing that term, but by foregrounding it, by bringing it back into a kind of serious consideration-- what it requires us to do is, I think, to understand that the various modalities of death, of what Ruthie Gilmore calls premature death, to which black people in the world and all over the world, not just in this country, but to which black people in the world are subjected, those modalities of premature death are so general and so vast, they manifest themselves not only as specific, intensified vulnerabilities to police violence or COVID-19, but they manifest themselves in a far more general and I think genocidal neglect and abandon.

That what it means is that, and I sincerely believe this although it certainly doesn't make me happy to believe, that on a certain fundamental level anti-Blackness is the cause of death of every Black person. Whatever else the cause of death might be, that cause of death has, as it were, a first cause that comes before it or a previous cause. And what I guess I'm trying to say is that that accounting, that brutal one-by-one collection, so to speak, of what one might call individual persons or some might even want to say individual black bodies into this vast fellowship of death, so to speak, that accounting still doesn't account for the ways in which blackness in black social life exists and persists beyond that brutal accounting.

And so it's blackness that I think of under the rubric of all, and it's individual black people that I think of under the rubric of every one. And that's basically what I'm saying. I guess that was a pretty long-winded way of saying it. So, sorry.

No, it was very, very helpful. Thank you. So, in the meantime, two questions have popped up, one from Evie Shockley, who first of all, thanks you for this brilliant talk and congratulates you and asks, when you ask have poets become the preachers of the movement, I think of Gwendolyn Brooks' sermons on the war plan. Could you talk more about the potential and the dangers within that role that I heard implied in that aspect of your talk?

Well, first of all, thank you, Evie. I feel kind of I I don't want to say embarrassed, but it's both very great that Evie and Honorée would be here, but it's also scary and daunting because they actually really know what they're talking about, and I'm mostly just playing. But I appreciate her being here.

Yeah, so basically it's the theologian, Ruby Sales, who I have in mind when I say that, and I'm echoing Ruby Sales' interesting formulations about the nature of the black church and the nature of the relationship between the black church and what we now call the Civil Rights Movement. And what Ms. Sales is saying is two things.

One, she talks about the emergence of Afro-American folk religion as a modality of resistance, and she calls it a church that was born in what she calls the bush harbors, a church that was born-- it wasn't an organized space. They didn't have a building. But that was, in a certain sense, organized around space in ways that hearken back to the sort of unofficial church that Baby Suggs ran or pastored in Beloved or in a different way, the church or the refuge or the sanctuary to which Matana Roberts refers in that beautiful piece of music and poetry which she gives us called All Things Beautiful.

And what it is that Ms. Sales says about this church is that the power of the church, the force of the church, what animated the church, the spirit that animated the church was in the congregation and not given by the preacher. And in this regard, what she says about that interplay of church and preacher is very similar to what our mutual friend and colleague, Erica Edward, says in a great book called Charisma and the Fictions -- ah, man. I'm going to mess up the title of her book-- Charisma, I believe, on the Fictions of Black Leadership.

What she says, kind of in echo but in a critical and deviant echo of Cedric Robinson, is that what happens is that the power and the force of the church is given not by way of the charisma of the preacher but by way of the charismata of the congregation, that those gifts of spirit actually animate that space and animate the congregation in this kind of wonderful and beautiful feedback loop.

And what Sales is saying is that what the preacher does often, and she talks about this specifically with regard to her experience in the Civil Rights Movement, she says that what the preacher often did was stand, as she says, over and against the movement in order to regulate it or to siphon it off in improperly sanctioned directions. So the preacher often was a kind of an agent, as it were, of a certain kind of illegitimate sovereignty.

And what's important and maybe even potentially sacrilegious for us to consider is that the sovereignty that the preacher represents is in some ways given in the figure of the state, but it's also sometimes given in the very notion of God, too. And so, anyway, what I'm suggesting is that the poet can very often stand in for that kind of problematic and illegitimate sovereignty in ways that correspond to what the preacher can do.

And it's not because the poet is insincere. It's not because the poet doesn't wish to carry those gifts of spirit. The problem is what happens when those gifts of spirit are filtered through an individual body and an individual voice even in the interest of a certain kind of artistic vision and artistic ambition. And really for me this boils down to a kind of tension that I guess is at the heart of my ambivalence about poetry, and it's a deep ambivalence because here I am still bound up with it.

But it's this notion that-- it's really bound up with how it is that black art seeks to carry and bear the gifts of black aesthetic sociality but how that very relation might itself be both regulatory and extractive in really problematic ways. And I would never look to anybody else as the prime example of this potential pitfall. I'm only ever basically considering this by way of my own problematic example.

Thank you, Fred. I should mention that Evie led a workshop and gave a reading here at the center last year when she was a Radcliffe fellow, so it's wonderful that you're joining us, Evie. Thank you.

The next question is from Fahima Efa. Forgive me if I have mispronounced your name, but the question is, I'm interested in how a quote "renewal of our habits of assembly" can relate to our mutual refusal in and as heir. Can Fred speak about what relations he sees between these?

Well, I'm interested in the relation between-- well, on two levels. The renewal of our habits of assembly is for me tantamount to-- well and I'm going to sort of abuse and misuse the work of a great, great poet and thinker named Dawn Lundy Martin, but I believe that the renewal of our habits of assembly is tantamount to a gathering of matter. But it is a gathering of matter that is also always a gathering of spirit. And when I say mutual air I mean that spirit and more specifically, more pointedly, I mean a meeting of those who are poor in spirit.

And that particular sort of moment in the Beatitudes is one that I guess I've been thinking about for a long time, and it is what kind of for me bears the trace or the strand, if you heard it in the talk, of a kind of attempt to consider and think along with the great liberation theologian, Gustavo Gutiérrez, and the necessity that he sees for us, as it were, to make what he calls a preferential option for the poor.

And I guess the way I want to understand that is that he means something like a preferential option for the poor in spirit. Now, the phrase poor in spirit is-- my understanding of it, and here I know I'm on shaky ground being in the Department of Religion and all, so I'm happy to be corrected.

But the poor in spirit are the ones who, as it were, share for me at least a kind of poverty, that they share a spirit of poverty which manifests itself as something like a refusal of ownership. It's a radical sharing, and it's a radical practice of gathering but that radical sharing and radical practice of gathering is precisely the mechanism in the protocol through which we have not only managed to survive but by way of which the victory that Manolo Callahan already declares, that that's the margin of our victory.

And it's very bound up with that fundamental distinction between all and every one. And so part of what would have to be worked through is a more full accounting and, so to speak, or fuller engagement with or a fuller understanding of what the relationship between all and gathering actually is. And so part of the reason why I'm sort of hemming and hawing at the beginning of trying to address this great question is because one of the things that it does is it makes you have-- it makes me at least have to think twice about the very term, the very word relation.

And what I was trying to say, what I was trying to get at-- see these little-- this gathering of air, that word of this mutual air. I'm also trying to think about that at the level of poetics because what I've a lot of times been fascinated by, I guess, are what you might call pauses or caesura, caesura in poetry, these little moments of recess, which I tend to think of as moments of gathering around which the rest of the music or around which the rest of the poetry is in some sense organized.

And what I was trying to say, what I'm trying to do, but, again, in a very-- I've never actually heard Honorée read this poem, and yet at another time I feel like I've heard black women read this poem all my life. And maybe my feeling of that has to do with this really intense moment about 2/3 of the way through the poem right before and right after the words, I know. Once you've found out who God was, it ain't good to you no more. I know.

It's the space, the air, as a scene of gathering around that phrase, I know, which I'm fascinated by. I'm fascinated by all such scenes as that, I guess I could say.

All right. I have a question that's come to me via email rather than the Q&A function here. I'm just going to read it to you. I love the way, Fred, that you talked about barbecue as a deep sacrament for the way in which it contains sacrifice and incarnates the ephemeral in taste and smell. Do you see that symbolic and material process in other kinds of food?

Oh man. That's a good question I have to-- I wish I had a lot of time to think about it. Yeah, though. I think the answer must be yeah. I just have to keep thinking about it more, but one way to think about it is I don't know, and I'm embarrassed to say that the whole-- that that chain of thought or that path of thought that the question introduces around sacrifice, I hadn't even gone down there yet. I hadn't even looked down that road yet. And so that's another thing.

By the same token, what the question also seems to get us to move towards is the possibility maybe of-- OK. Something weird. Can you still hear me?

Yep. Yep.

Charlie, can you still hear me?

I can still hear you, yes.

OK. Something weird just happened with my computer.

Can you hear me, Fred?

Yeah, I can. My computer just did something weird, but I'm going to act like it's not happening.


So, what I was trying to say is, yeah, the answer to the word is cake. The answer to the question is cake. That's the other food and I can imagine. And while it might not be quite vegan all the way it certainly at least is vegetarian in the way that I'm thinking about it. So, there might be a way in which it even escapes a certain logic of sacrifice, but the cake. Yes. Cake.

Let me ask you a sort of variant on that question. When you said earlier, Fred, about these modes of assembly involve matter. It made me-- your chirping is coming back, but we can do-- [CHIRPING] Oh, there it is. I wonder how important it is that the barbecue is around flesh and meat. How important is that for your thinking about the peculiar and particular mode of assembly of the barbecue?

Well, it's certainly important in the sense that flesh for me is going to always hearken back to this profound analytic of flesh that emerges in black feminist discourse with full force in 1987 with the coincidence of the publication of Beloved on the one hand and in Hortense Spillers' "Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe" on the other. In those two sort of twin braided discourses on flesh are basically just both where pretty much everything I ever think about starts there. I would say.

But where meat comes into play, really it comes into play around some questions around Eucharist and some questions around transubstantiation but also maybe some interesting questions around the kind of tension that might exist between transubstantiation and co-substantiality or consubstantiality, which I've been trying to think about for a while, too.

And when I pointedly made reference to the great poet George Herbert's "Love (III)", that famous poem which is a poem of Eucharist. It's a poem of gathering in which love or God or actually some trinitarian consubstantial figure who maybe we can't quite simply delineate or denominate says, come and taste my meat, to the pilgrim know who walks into the temple.

But I also feel like meat could be meat in the common sense of the term, but let it be sweet meats, too. It's kind of funny. I think of it as just maybe a warning from a higher power, but that was the Red Hot Chili Peppers for some reason. Anyway, yeah, sweet meats. But definitely there's that whole sort of complex around the Eucharist that's also in play.

I want to ask you a question from my colleague here at the Divinity School, Todne Thomas, who has just posted the following question. I'll read it aloud to you. I think you can see it too, Fred, if you want, but I'll read it out loud for the folks who can't see it. She writes, I have a question about the senses as something situated between the symbolic and the material and how it might operate as not only operative in the Church of the hush arbor but in relationship to the wartime mysticism you mention. Do we have a wealth of our common senses and might that intersubjective framing of senses be a way that gets us out of a determinative materialism, black bodiness of Afro-pessimism and the decontextualized and disembodied logic of Christian theologies of transcendence?

Yes. Yes. I know from my own sort of perverse personal reasons, I wouldn't use the term intersubjective, but common I would love to use, that this common sense or this commonality of sensuality. Maybe probably to be perfectly honest I would maybe even rather use the notion of the term under common sense, which Stefano Harney and I talk about in terms of hapticality or feel, where feel doesn't so much enshrine one sense over the others but is a common term that means to imply the holosensual or the synesthetic feel.

But, yeah, that wealth, that common or under common sense that we share, it does move against the grain, not only of the sort of immaterialities a certain kind of Christian tradition but it certainly moves against the grain of a certain kind of materialism that Afro-pessimism might be said to bear. But if it moves against the grain of both of those, it also moves with the grain of both of those, too. It's not in my mind a simple negation of either one.

And I guess the main point would be that for me that's where the coining of the phrase animateriality comes from, that interplay of anima and materiality that I've been interested in and which I feel like is still operative both in the Christian tradition as well as in Afro-pessimism, and it's also even to me still operative in Marx, in that really beautiful moment early on when he prophesies communism is the field within which the senses will become theoreticians in their practice. He has intimations of that animateriality, too.

And to my mind so does a lot of the work in the Christian tradition that I'm invested in and interested in, and for that matter so does a lot of the work of Afro-pessimism that I'm interested in and invested in though as I guess I've said a lot of times, I'm never, ever going to call myself an Afro-pessimist just because in spite of all the brilliant arguments to the contrary, especially that Jared Sexton makes about the rigor and the importance and the necessity of a certain kind of philosophical pessimism, I just never have been quite able to go there myself, which is to say I haven't been able to go there because I don't want to.

Maybe one last question. This one circles back to the question of flesh, and it comes from Peyton White. Concerning a radical sharing and radical gathering, do you have any thoughts on how we can manifest our fleshliness in remote work? We are informed of our individuation, alone working in our homes perhaps more than ever. I want to share mutual air again.

Well, it's funny. I was talking about this with a friend today via Zoom who was in Mexico. And what we had to acknowledge was both this overwhelming sense of being isolated and individuated in our lonely rooms, as you suggest, Peyton, I think it is. But what we also had to acknowledge was that we would never have been talking together like we were talking together today outside of these particular conditions.

And none of that is meant to ameliorate or to try to make some argument for the absolute brutality of the present conditions. It just means that I do not think history will absolve us if we don't take into account that there is something potentially mutually disruptive and at the same time also productive about the ways in which we can be present with one another in nonproximity that somehow moves in some dialectical relation with the brutality that we have to endure because we are not able to align our presence with proximity.

Look, I mean it's not to say that it's not bad and all jacked up right now, but I just feel like I would be remiss, myself, if I didn't kind of acknowledge all these really, really intense sort of modalities of gathering that I have become involved in through this medium in the last few months. And I'm talking with people everywhere, people who, again, like I said, I wouldn't ordinarily be with.

So what I'm interested in is I'm both unhappy about my inability to really be with them and especially my inability to be with people who are even closer to me than these friends I have in the Yucatan or friends that I have in Columbia or friends in Greece or in England. I'm unhappy about not being able to be with them in the limited ways in which I used to be able to see them every once in a while, and I'm unhappier even than that about the ways in which I can't be with my students and my colleagues even though we're in the same city.

But by the same token, what I'm really concerned about is how I can transfer some of the things that this use that has being forced upon us of this particular mode of digital technology-- I want to figure out how to transfer that back into the classroom when I get to go back into the classroom and how to transfer that back into the meeting room when I get to go back into the meeting room.

There's some cool stuff about the chat and how it carries memory and how it allows us to share archives and share threads And also how it allows this kind of contrapuntal disruption of the preacherly function, which no one is more susceptible to than me. So I kind of feel like I want to make sure we have a way of carrying that with us when we go back into being in the same space together.

And more than anything, the main thing, with regard specifically to the structure and the function of the university now is I'm interested in how we might be able to mobilize this technology in order to fight and resist the university paywall or at least in the American university specifically and maybe how else would we characterize that wall in other universities? Maybe the merit wall. But whatever it is that keeps some people in and some people out.

I'm interested in that not only for whatever benefits the people who are outside the University might have but for whatever corrosive force the people who are outside the University might have on those of us who are in the University. So I'm interested in how the technology might be used for that. And of course, it's always important to consider that however we might think it could be used for good, there are bosses in the world who are obviously very, very adept at thinking about how it could be used for ill.

Well, we're over our appointed time, Fred, and I want to honor your time and the demands on your time, so I think we should wrap up, but let me say first of all to those of you who are still with us, thank you for joining us. Thank you for registering for this event. Let me make a very brief plug for an event on November 2nd called "The Religion of White Rage". It's a panel discussion with three editors of a new book come out of Edinburgh University Press. That's Stephen Finley, Biko Mandela Gray, and Lori Latrice Martin will be joining us to talk about that important publication on the eve of the election.

And the best way to keep abreast of that and any other event that we host here at the center is to join the mailing list, which you can do on our website or anytime you register for an event. But, Fred, let me thank you once again. This was a thrilling talk. As I said, it was demanding because my mind would grab on to one kind of really challenging phrase. Two or three would sneak by. So this will be recorded and will be posted on our website for those of you who'd like to return to it as I will. Fred, we'll pass on to you all the questions that were posed, some of which we didn't have a chance to put to you in person. So Godspeed, good luck, and thank you for all you're doing, Fred, and thank you especially for joining us this evening. Congratulations again.