The book is a meditation on a way of life that is joyous and abundant without ever asserting that we must all convert to Pentecostalism.
“How can we encourage the flourishing of all life, of the creaturely world, against the violence of the state?”
In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is Ashon Crawley. Crawley is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies and African American and African Studies at the University of Virginia.His book is Blackpentecostal Breath: The Aesthetics of Possibility.
Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
Ashon Crawley: Blackpentecostal Breath: The Aesthetics of Possibility begins with a meditation on Eric Garner’s declaration, lament and plea, “I can’t breathe.” I begin with these words because the violence Garner experienced in Staten Island in 2014 at the hand of the state was an intense and explicit demonstration of the general and ongoing practice of racialist violence. This racialist violence that Ruth Wilson Gilmore discusses with the language of “group differentiated vulnerability” is modernity’s literal practice of interrupting the capacity to breathe in group differentiated ways, based on race, gender, class, sexual orientation, ability and the like.
Blackpentecostal Breath is an attempt to think about the urgency of our current political economic, which is always a social, crisis. How can we encourage the flourishing of all life, of the creaturely world, against the violence of the state?What practices and traditions can we turn to that have performed resistance, dissidence, dissent? Blackpentecostal Breath attends to the practices of Blackpentecostal believers -- whooping during preaching, dancing in the spirit, praise noise and speaking in tongues -- to argue that these unbounded, anti-rationalist, deeply fleshly practices are alternatives to the normative aspirational order of things.
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
I hope that readers will think about the ways marginalized peoples, minoritized knowledges, have in the past and currently practiced the alternative, or what I theorize in the book as otherwise possibility. Otherwise possibility names the fact that alternatives to what is considered to be normal already exist, alternatives have already been enacted in this world. Otherwise possibility names the fact that we can practice alternatives as a critique of the violence of the normative world.
“Alternatives to what is considered to be normal already exist.”
This is not a futureward, it is not about futurity to come, though it might charge our imaginations in the direction of what is to come. Otherwise possibility names the fact that alternatives have already been practiced, that the plurality of capacity for the emergence of otherwise is the ground of existence. I want for those that attempt an activism praxis to realize that in gathering, in thinking with others, in imagining alternatives, they are practicing otherwise possibility. We do not have to wait for something like a utopia but we can turn to black, brown, indigenous, queer, feminist, womanist knowledges, traditions, imaginings.This turn will allow the tear and rip into the smooth trajectory of linear knowledge production, the seeming totalized force of oppressive practices.
We know readers will learn a lot from your book, but what do you hope readers will un-learn? In other words, is there a particular ideology you’re hoping to dismantle?
One thing I attempted to interrogate in Blackpentecostal Breath is the concept of categorical distinction. I look at the concepts of philosophy, theology and history to argue that these concepts emerge because of western epistemological needs for racial classification and distinction. The argument is not that these conceptual domains are bereft of knowledge production but that these conceptual domains as categorically distinct and pure ways to produce thought are produced by a racial logic.
I learn about and attempt to extend this concept of racialization from both Cedric Robinson’s Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition and the work Sylvia Wynter elaborates, particularly in her “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom” and “The Ceremony Must Be Found” essays. Racialization is a thought project that attempts to name kind, species, difference by way of religion, by way of biology, by way of practice. I consider the examples of philosophy, theology and history to be part of a racial project even when work from within those conceptual domains and disciplinary boundaries are in the direction of the critique and interrogation of racialization.
“I hope we unlearn the sorta Newtonian world of time and space.”
So. I hope that readers will unlearn the reliance on categorical distinction, I hope they will unlearn, and help me to unlearn too, the ways thought and imagination and practice have been severed one from another because of the racial project that is produced by European thinking, what Wynter calls the overrepresentation of Man. I want us to together unlearn the reliance on concepts of categorical difference as productive of purity in thought, imagination, practice. And, along with Denise Ferreira da Silva, I hope we unlearn the sorta Newtonian world of time and space and, rather, embrace what da Silva calls “difference without separability.” What we have to unlearn, in other words, is an entire epistemology of thought, imagination, practice.
Who are the intellectual heroes that inspire your work?
The heroes that inspire my work include Nahum Chandler, Roxann Crawley, Yvette Flunder, Michel Foucault, Saidiya Hartman, Nathaniel Mackey, Fred Moten, Cedric Robinson, Lynice Pinkard, Denise Ferreira da Silva, Sylvia Wynter.
In what way does your book help us imagine new worlds?
In Blackpentecostal Breath I argue that we already have what we need – imagination, joy, relationality – to allow to unfold liberatory and equitable worlds. The book is a meditation on a way of life that is joyous and abundant and noisy without ever asserting or even implying that we must all convert to Pentecostalism. I attempt to demonstrate the ways alternatives exist in that world and use those alternatives to charge the imaginations of readers to imagine what else we might already have been, and live into the practice of alternatives against normativity. That to say, I am unsure if the book helps to imagine new worlds as much as I think it lingers on and with what has already been imagined and practiced materially against the theological, philosophical and historical aspirations for normativity that renounce the possibility for the imagining and practice of alternatives. Blackpentecostal Breath, in other words, simply wants to demonstrate that something is already imagined otherwise. Or, to use the language of Cedric Robinson, “as a scholar it was never my purpose to exhaust the subject, only to suggest that it was there.” It, in this case, is the practice of irreducible different, otherwise possibility. If it has been then it can continue to be practiced.
Roberto Sirvent is Professor of Political and Social Ethics at Hope International University in Fullerton, CA. He also serves as the Outreach and Mentoring Coordinator for the Political Theology Network. He’s currently writing a book with fellow BAR contributor Danny Haiphong called American Exceptionalism and American Innocence: A People’s History of Fake News—From the Revolutionary War to the War on Terror.
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