Thinking about software, hardware, and the digital helps me to think about how to remove the ghost from Toni Morrison’s Beloved, without removing its affective ghostliness, the haunting.
This is important because it is actually somewhat difficult to make a claim regarding who or what Beloved is. We just say ‘ghost’ because it’s easy, a catchall for that which is generated between erstwhile stable realms of knowledge and experience. Beloved is a novel about what happens in the wake of an individual’s singular and too sharp encounter with a world of meaning that cycles along with or without her but that is, regardless, there and waiting. It is a novel about things virtually no one could or should ever comprehend, Sethe's head-first dive into mediation. In missing the distinction between being free and getting free, she lets herself believe that freedom comes after life, that life is just bodies and that that hardware could be left behind.
This line of thought broadens the central ideological conflict in Beloved, which is a way of thinking about the deep differences between Sethe and Baby Suggs, between Sethe’s belief in an abstract dominion, and Baby Suggs in the holiness of flesh on the earth, Sethe’s virtuality and Baby Suggs’ deep rejection thereof. For Baby Suggs, black life is matter. Flesh. Without this kind of singular focus on the fact of living, we are left only to utter #blacklifematters when a life has been lost, when the flesh is gone.
When I say “ideological conflict,” I do indeed mean ideological conflict. But despite the appropriateness of the term, this language seems all wrong. In this example, my interest in Seth is mainly a precipitate of my looking for a way to get at Baby Sugg’s connectedness without recourse to clichés about her being “down to earth,” while also thinking about Sethe’s willingness to fly from it. I am thinking about the beauty of Song of Solomon‘s ending lines, “if you surrendered to the air, you could ride it,” and how the beauty of the sentiment screens us from the ugliness of the encounter, a choice Morrison makes throughout that novel.
There is something here about the abstract and the material that is difficult to suss out because the abstract is nonetheless material to our living in the world. Wanting to hear her sermon, I come across the word ‘antiphony.’ Perhaps Baby Suggs and Sethe are in antiphony, each singing the same song wrong. Thinking about digital media, particularly in its capacity to speed re-mediation, to let the “wrong” things come together, helps me to intuit the uncanniness of antiphonal performance, and to think about the horrors that are repressed or sublimated “in the break,” as Fred Moten conceives it.
It is the antiphony we heard in the 1990s, in Bone, Thugs, and Harmony’s Tha Crossroads.
It is the antiphonic impulse that Ralph Ellison’s narrator ventriloquizes in Invisible Man. It is the difference between the signal and the call.
Antiphony is in the everyday grace we can hear in the melody of Louis Armstrong’s What did I do to be so black and blue, set against the near-suicide of its lyrics.
In Beloved, we are witness to antiphony when we hear, in Baby Sugg’s sermon, the voices voicing. In the film version of this scene. It is also in the clockwise and counterclockwise movements of the participants, the turning of the clock, gears backward and forward, forward and back.
In There is No Software, media theorist Friedrich Kittler elaborates on the distinction between the kinds of software that drove earlier processors, versus the increasingly graphical interfaces– IFTTT is today's best example — that disappear the mechanism by which a machine is controlled, insofar as “perfect graphic user interfaces, since they dispense with writing itself, hide a whole machine from its users.” In thinking of the graphic antiphony we’re given in the film version of Beloved, and thinking it against Sethe’s “rememory,” I also hear Kittler’s invocation of the digital’s own root origin, which has also become its antithesis:
This structural difference can be easily illustrated. “A combination lock,” for instance, “is a finite automaton, but it is not ordinarily decomposable into a base set of elementary-type components that can be reconfigured to simulate an arbitrary physical system. As a consequence it is not structurally programmable, and in this case it is effectively programmable only in the limited sense that its state can be set for achieving a limited class of behaviours.” On the contrary, “a digital computer used to simulate a combination lock is structurally programmable since the behaviour is achieved by synthesizing it from a canonical set of primitive switching components.”
Like the digital, rememory is that which has origin, but is also discrete from it, unrooted. This video, directed by Hiro Murai for Flying Lotus (featuring Kendrick Lamar!), demonstrates this unrootedness. It’s beauty, like those closing line of Song of Solomon, cloak the violence of the uprootedness we can assume lay at the visual story’s own origin, the death of children here remediated into an ecstatic animation:
In Murai’s video, the visual effect of the dancers is that of bodies moving in a timeframe distinct from the background against which they appear. As far as I can tell this is an element of the video that looks like a technical special effect, but it may in fact be generated by affect, by the deep distance between the setting, a funeral for children, and the joyous celebration embodied in their movement. They are, literally, operating on another level. We can tell that Murai is trying to draw attention to the effect. Inside the church, the flickering parlor lights at the beginning of the video, the coffin in front of the blinds, almost like static, and then the clapping of the choir, which is synced to the track, matches the childrens’ movement but, backlit, they are more like angels than congregants. Outside, Murai forces us to experience the dancers’ moving amongst other children who are also in motion– though clearly in a different way.
If we return to the image of Baby Sugg’s sermon, we can see how the diffusion of feeling across the congregants makes their service bearable: #blacklifematters. In the Flying Lotus video, the dancing children transmit every position, joy and sorrow. Now transcendent, their dance, from the Lindyhop to the cabbage patch, carries the viewer across the generations. Unfortunately, they are out of sync with our sense of the meaningfulness of their demise. IS this what Sethe imagines, in love with a handsaw?
To never be caught is to fly but, even here, to fly is to ______ .
[/hook video.asset #istandwithbabysuggs ?#blacklifematters]
That isn’t an error. That is a dream in the substrate. Meanwhile, with or without me?: