January 2015



Wandering: Philosophical Performances of Racial and Sexual Freedom by Sarah Jane Cervenak

There were countless times when I noticed that having your own inner choreography, mentally or physically, was perceived as a threat by others around me. And maybe this is the reason this book appealed to me. In Wandering: Philosophical Performances of Racial and Sexual Freedom, Sarah Jane Cervenak points toward the Age of Enlightenment as being the main designer of the straight-and-narrow path that pushed everything and everyone aside once they were deemed noncompliant with the touchstones, a path that only reinforced the already invading whiteness, and consolidated its performance against the black stillness already imposed by decades of slavery. A righteous path that criminalized any kind of wandering, especially when performed by a minority that was already at risk simply because it existed, because it looked and behaved differently than the rest, the white-colored rest. Arguing that wandering off this righteous path was characteristic and self-imposed for Enlightenment philosophers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Immanuel Kant, Cervenak uses their recorded encounters with racial and sexual difference to make an interesting point. The path of reason, the one so valued by the preachers of the Age of Enlightenment, required a violent, colonizing kind of strolling in order to apprehend its own delimitations. And it was this kind of calculated wandering that created an artificial yet perfect context for the Others to be judged and held against the holy trinity of the Age of Enlightenment (rationality, masculinity, and restraint) and to define their way of moving and acting as reckless, as a lack of rationality and inner will that could only cause someone to feel afraid of these "poor unenlightened souls."

The exclusion of enslaved black women from the categories of both "slaves" and "woman" was a common feature of white abolitionist-suffragist discourse, although white women sometimes invoked claims to a universal sisterhood that contained assumptions about a universal womanly character. At the same time, the tropes of sisterhood and uplift began to foster and reflect a new self-understanding among white women that they, as white women, had a moral responsibility to reform an evil social and political system. [...] Even if the hegemonic Enlightenment logic of truth presumed that everything lived could be seen and captured, histories of antislavery resistance and philosophy theorized otherwise. For those subjected to the most vicious of state constraints, truth is often found, according to Hartman, outside the "dominative imposition of transparency and the degrading hypervisibility of the enslaved." In the crook and the garret, at the moment when speech and comportment wander against all efforts to straighten out and render transparent, freedom's path is (un)written.

But the Enlightenment's idealized subject was a deeply racist one, acting on the principles of self-determination and transparency, marginalizing and objectifying any other subjectivity and, as a result, perceiving blackness as poverty, a lack of freedom, and absence of manhood, to be addressed as soon as possible. And these were the precise patterns that were counteracted by an appositional black enlightenment devised by antislavery activists such as Martin Delaney, Harriet Jacobs, and David Walker, who sought new grounds for another kind of movement, grounds that existed or could be imagined beyond the spaces confined by slavery, grounds that could be used as a background for new reveries that exceeded the common slave's plot. But even if the black enlightenment questioned the Enlightenment's sexist, racist, and heteronormative constraints, it also came with its own corrective venture, perversely reproducing the workings of the same exclusion to which it was supposed to react. It expressed an absolute animosity toward any mode of comportment perceived as less upright, non-straight, and unrestrained, even if this comportment was initiated by black men and women. In fact, it used former or current slavery as the measure for one's capacity to become enlightened. Cervenak argues that in Sojourner Truth's case, a vocal abolitionist and advocate of women's rights, her illiteracy, privately inspired behavior, and bodily enactments of freedom were all perceived as linked to her former slavery, and therefore to her failure to reach enlightenment. Even though Sojourner Truth spoke about liberation, her philosophy was measured against a racial and sexual rationale, and thus easily dismissed due to its perceived lack of enlightened embodiment. It was simply discarded by the same black enlightenment that was supposed to counteract constrained narratives of freedom and expressions of identity.

Aiming her attention at two of playwright Adrienne Kennedy's works, Funnyhouse of a Negro and The Owl Answers (1965), Cervenak conveys that their surrealist aesthetics, their twisted and nonstraight storytelling should be perceived as wandering away from the rhetoric of black captivity, from how a play should be written in order to preserve its transparency to anyone willing to read it. Autobiographically inspired, dreamlike and offbeat, Adrienne Kennedy's works are known for addressing issues such as race and violence in a combination of strong imagery and polymorphic meanings. No wonder they turned out to be a constant frustration for any critical approach that tries to assess and pin their meaning down. No wonder critics were eager to label Adrienne Kennedy as "psychotic" instead of just admitting their own failure at trying to understand something that maybe is not supposed to be understood, at least not in a conventional way. Her female characters are entangled in multiple realities, speaking with other imaginary characters, denying any attempt to label them and redefining the black female desire. Shortly, they want to create and express their own freedom. The kind of freedom that is impossible to be held against the rigid scale encroached by post-Enlightenment subject construction as it deliberately comes in unscriptable forms. Kennedy's characters seem to be fully invested in wandering beyond any prescribed scenario and against any presumptions that the playwright suffered from internalized racism. For them, wandering stands for a liberatory way of living. It becomes their opportunity to keep moving from one identificatory choice to another and resist any outside regulation. Their kind of wandering attempts to avoid any recognition by others, any codes that racialize one's body just to make it more suited for criminalization. But their bodies still suffer exterior policing.

Put another way, if mind wandering doesn't easily serve capital, it may be in need of cure or constraint. Once again, the logics of transparent self-determination, rationality, and productivity at the heart of the post-Enlightenment subjectivity reveal their complicity with the state's antiwandering ethos. In other words, drifts away from the pulls of life, labor, and identity become subject to a range of disciplinary maneuvers. Constraints manifest in everything from a teacher's admonishment of a student who stares out the window too long to the psychiatric diagnosis of a person who wanders away from his or her identity and presumed social responsibility. [...] [P]hysical roaming often expresses philosophical desire, a searching. When that physical movement suffers policing, sometimes the phantasmatic travel suffers as well. When visible wanderings of body, speech, and tone figure as unproductive or inefficient, the terrains of the mind often endure similar pathologizings. There are places where public interest collides with private desire and black wandering is written up as a violation.

As for Gayl Jones's Mosquito, Cervenak argues that it's the author's attempt to resist any exterior interpretation by making a text that is hard to read, where characters fold and unfold to their hearts' desire, indifferent to the reader's frustration with a text that refuses to unveil its meaning. Mosquito is a traveler's tale, a jazz story that is/is not about a black female character who stays true to the essence of the Underground Railroad by refusing to convey any clear purpose or meaning to her wandering. She avoids telling you what you may expect her to tell you. The fact is that she refuses to tell you the whole story. She chooses to write instead of being written by others' conventions, conventions that measure one's writing by its efficiency and clarity. Jones subverts any linear storytelling imposed by Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment visions of racial and sexual freedom through creating and recreating imaginary territories that are almost impossible to colonize, to be trespassed against her will. Her earlier works, Eva's Man and Coreggidora also make their characters roam away from racialized worlds, placing black privacy beyond the bounds of others and counteracting hegemonic performances and disciplinary gimmicks.

But her storytelling is still grasped as rambling, as bad writing. Constructing and deconstructing her storytelling, Jones advances the issue of black freedom and desire somewhere past the sphere of discursive readability to attain momentary and also controversial (for her readers and critics) renunciations to subjectivity, to any claim to one's self. She imagines black freedom and desire free from any rationalist outlook, not having to apply to any dazzling otherness and not bound by the restraints of border patrols or mental asylums. Through her texts, Jones makes room for private withholdings and daydream worlds that don't harm her and aren't punished by society or state simply because their sheer existence is enough to disrupt public assumptions. Conclusively, Cervenak turns toward the way Adrian Piper's Everything, William Pope L.'s Thunderbird Immolation, and Carrie Mae Weems's Roaming series reimagine the liberatory zones beyond the Enlightenment's grasp arguing that these works of art should also be contemplated as privately animated philosophical acts.

Sarah Jane Cervenak's Wandering: Philosophical Performances of Racial and Sexual Freedom questions the very essence of wandering instead of simply adding a new magnitude to it. Mostly, it questions the way wandering and daydreaming are perceived, especially when performed by Others according to their own desires instead of just complying to the invisible and imposed "travel guide." A pointless or directionless wandering, at least when it seems so to outside observers, receives a whole new meaning once old norms are peeled away to reveal something completely unexpected: a motive will, a will that is completely autonomous from supremacist narratives.

As a mode of resistance, wandering is a philosophical performance that becomes itself outside of surveillance, outside the four-block restrictions of other's visions and fears of dangerous "dancing". Put another way, on the other side of stop and frisk, untravelable blocks, violent stares, and vicious (mis)readings, wandering still might get you home. This isn't to say that we should stop agitating against the secularized, post-Enlightenment criminalization of black wandering. Rather, we ought not presume that the arrested roamer hasn't already initiated that critique. In that person's roaming, rambling, communing with the invisible, and musing on a piece of glass, philosophies of freedom are innovated and reimagined. Somewhere in between the roamer's eyes and the ocean, some kind of undisclosed movement might very well save her life.

Wandering: Philosophical Performances of Racial and Sexual Freedom by Sarah Jane Cervenak
Duke University Press
ISBN: 978-0822357278
232 pages