"the jazz of American identity," I mean the improvisation
of identity in the sociocultural context of the United States. I
focus particularly on identity that's acknowledged as racial, specifically
on the matter of blackness and whiteness in the U. S. In connecting
jazz with racial identity, I follow a tradition of writing about
jazz, particularly as emphasized by authors in the Black Arts movement.
The key connection is that the improvising voice (or voicing) in
jazz can disrupt musical normality in the same way that racialized
identity can thwart naturalizations that have produced (and which
are circularly based on) the identity.
Addressing identity means addressing context. Certainly all identities
(human or otherwise) belong to multiple contexts, and within context
they shift--human social or cultural identities aren't "singular
or internally consistent," in Judith Roof's words (2)--yet
an identity can't change itself, but only change in terms of configuration
within context. To the extent that a particular identity can be
understood as performative, it must be understood as working upon
the context in which the identification takes place. Identity, while
fully dependent on context, may be found engaging context such that
context shifts or changes--for example, insofar as a context loses
naturalization. When American racial and ethnic identity are seen
as improvised, sociocultural contexts are recognized as not natural,
but rather as constructed and both fissile and unstable.
In jazz improvisation and in the context of identity, naturalizing
frameworks are put into play when otherness intervenes--when what's
outside the frame alters the structure and semantics of the framework.
When voice or race works improvisationally upon context by engaging
what's outside any purported totalization of context, the respective
context becomes denatured. Frames of reference give way to decentered
ensembles of relations in which neither voices nor identities have
full presence but emerge as traced by, while always referring beyond,
the playing amid relationships.
Craig Hansen Werner explains that jazz performance addresses binaries
that mark the inside and outside of rhythmic and tonal forms, although
demarcations aren't entirely destroyed or replaced during improvisation.
The framing contexts of inside and outside are played upon, as the
player works, for example, to be both inside and outside at once
while sounding wholly outside the key or the bar (another permutation
might be sounding inside while not being so). A doubled (or multiple)
being or doubled consciousness is experienced in the playing, and
in the listening, or conceivably between the two. Of course this
isn't simply entertainment: there's pain and struggle in the art
of jazz, as Werner notes in tying improvisation to what Ralph Ellison
calls the "blues impulse" (Ellison 28), an "ancient"
source entirely anterior to the musical context. (Werner xxi) Such
doubled consciousness and the concomitant irruption of temporality
put the formal aspects of the music under critique, or under erasure,
as the temporal and physical presence of the performance context
become denatured by the intervention of the non-present (but not
simply absent); improvisation (as its etymology emphasizes) engages
the dimension of the unforeseen. That is, improvisation (of voice
or identity) performs a critique of metaphysics, of presence and
totality. Jazz performance is paradigmatic of a deconstructive moment
of identification, where what's outside the contextual framework
is revealed as intervening on the frame.
Certainly the denaturing, surprising aspect of improvised performance
occurs in all music, and moreover all art. This definitional moment
of art is consistent with claims by artists and aestheticians concerning
what's critical in art--claims that art denatures, disrupts frameworks,
always engages what in jazz language is commonly termed "outside."
Seen thus, all art troubles assumptions about being--is always deconstructive--and
thus metaphysical in the sense of engaging in a metaphysics of the
unassimilated, in the sense of engaging otherness, radicality, indeed
radical otherness. Writing about jazz has tended to emphasize this
aspect of art particularly well, emphasizing the issue of being
alive to alterity lying in unforeseen time.
Thinking of race in terms of improvisation requires an understanding
of race as constructed reality. Charles W. Mills discusses race
as ontological without being physical or essential (xiv): race is
real, but real in an "intersubjective" way, by virtue
of having been naturalized in culture and language (48). W. E. B.
DuBois, famously, discusses how for African Americans, an awareness
of racial marking usually entails an indelible sense of socially
mediated identity. According to DuBois, the African-American subject
can grasp the paradox of "double consciousness," by which
inclusion in and exclusion from naturalized (read Enlightenment)
human being coincide (DuBois's "color line" being a function
of naturalized sociocultural context) (45). DuBois locates in subjective
human blackness a critical awareness of simultaneous belonging and
not belonging, a sense that one should belong, yet doesn't, to citizenship
and full humanity. Sandra Adell sees this double consciousness as
exemplary of Hegelian unhappy consciousness, in which the subject
hasn't achieved the full light of Reason (which of course even for
Hegel remains a mythic achievement). Adell's observation yields
an understanding of blackness as poignantly typical of modern human
experience--typical of consciousness that's aware of its contextual
contradictions, unable to avoid or mask them with a naturalizing
myth of transcendental subjectivity.
Of course DuBois doesn't say blackness is typical of everyone in
the U. S., yet the formulation of double consciousness opens up
general subjectivity (and avoids racial essentialism): what's most
significant is his opposition of doubled subjectivity to the transcendental
and deracinated subjectivity that has become widely associated with
"whiteness." Doubleness emerges as what Trinh Minh-ha
embraces as "hyphenated" existence, entailing interrogation
of any claim regarding what's naturally human. Adam Lively writes
that such interrogation via blackness breaks up the illusion of
unmediated human being, as the resultant denaturing overcomes classical
subjectivity. As is commonly expressed in the field of whiteness
studies, the naturalizing force of whiteness begins to look strange
once we gain a critical awareness of the complexity of what have
been termed non-white subjectivities.
Stuart Hall notes that blackness is "always positional":
"Blackness as a political identity in the light of the understanding
of any identity is always complexly composed, always historically
constructed. It is never in the same place" (152). Hall further
describes blackness (again like all identity) as being continually
developed, always in process, involving ambivalence and entailing
a splitting of the human subject and a lack of completion. That
is, blackness per se always already exceeds what it's identified
to be. Considering the category of human blackness as an object
of knowledge, we find the object incomplete, or incompletely known
(albeit without being able to tell the difference). "Blackness"
becomes a term for experience by which expressions of human difference
are seen to fail and thus lead to différance (to apply Jacques
Derrida's terminology to Laclau and Mouffe's thinking; Laclau 125,
plus see Rapaport 1-2). Blackness becomes a notion of incompleting--a
movement of deferral and deflection of knowing about humanity.
There have been various approaches to such a notion of blackness
that, rather than reifying African or African-American experience,
expresses under the signifier "black" a humanity that
plays against what's thereby framed as mythic whiteness. Amiri Baraka,
Nathaniel Mackey, and others have referred to the thematics of jazz
in discussing such self- and social improvisation by black subjects.
Even in revolutionary and separatist Black Arts rhetoric, the term
"black" is used almost always in a knowingly metaphorical
way. Although of course the word had and continues to have material
referentiality (with skin tone as the purported referent), even
in Black Arts use it's metaphoric to the extent that it may be read
as suggesting an exemplary notion of always incompletely accomplished
For the Black Arts movement, the object "blackness" emphasizes
black culture, what Stephen Henderson calls the "commodity"
of blackness (4). In articulating this object, the most recognized
voices of the movement (such as Baraka, Larry Neal, and Addison
Gayle) draw upon folk traditions, developments in jazz, and other
perceived (and somewhat selective) features of practices inherited
from African peoples, thus developing a pan-Africanism that--in
its imaginative depth and breadth--emphasizes the excessive feature
of blackness: an emphatic proliferation, always incomplete. Kimberly
W. Benston suggests this amorphous blackness is no less effective
or less real for its being legible as a synthetic "necessary
fiction" (4). He emphasizes that the Black Arts movement's
attempts to construct a "primordial blackness" have led
to a broad "(re)discovery of the subversive ambiguity of any
expressive act," so that these attempts have led to a performative
and thus counter-essential notion of blackness (10). As Black Arts
rhetoric yields black culture as a radical object that functions
politically as a discourse, black culture emerges as doubly metaphoric
and self-undermining: lacking and opposing totality, it does transformative
work on itself and its broader contexts.
Mackey devotes an essay to the aesthetic transgression of "othering"
performed by African-American musicians ("Other"). He
discusses how black Americans can take the experience of having
been cast as others while being incorporated within American life--that
is, their having been palpably "othered"--and can convert
that experience into an othering of the art forms they receive within
the American context, typically European forms. Baraka discusses
an example of such othering when he writes of John Coltrane's performances
of received popular songs. Baraka notes that Coltrane alters or
destroys the songs' formal aspects so severely that he "murders"
the songs and the forms (Black Music 174), the result being the
reincorporation of the musical materials in what must be understood
as an entirely different American musical context.
Baraka and Mackey locate the development and dynamics of jazz improvisation
in the historical struggle for African American liberty and power--in
the history of opposition to categorical and othering whiteness.
Black American experience, in this history, appears as the experience
of being or feeling marked or impacted by an ancestral connection
to slave subordination, within a culture that's marked and impacted
by slavery. In The Location of Culture, Homi Bhabha emphasizes the
post-coloniality of African-American experience as indispensable
for any attempt to locate or identify black culture. According to
Bhabha, signifying black experience divides signification itself.
Signifying blackness--trying to make it present--splits the present,
as the past intervenes: black experience per se is an intervention
of the slave past on the present. Bhabha discusses how the splitting
of metaphysical time by history emerges in Frantz Fanon's view of
the "belatedness of the black man," who must live the
trauma of having come after the arrival of (white, Enlightenment)
"Man" (Bhabha 236-37).
Bhabha cites Toni Morrison's notion of a "not-there" that
he refers to as a "'black' space that [Morrison] distinguishes
from the Western sense of synchronous tradition--which then turns
into the 'first stroke' of slave rememory [sic]" (198-99, 251).
This signifying space or "void," Morrison writes, "may
be empty but it is not a vacuum" ("Unspeakable" 11).
Such a "dis/location" of black culture--perhaps better
put as a dis/location of blackness in American culture (that is,
discernible at least potentially by any American)--intervenes on
systematic thought that would privilege synchronic time, time that
would organize and naturalize human relations. The intervention
of history on the present thereby overcomes what Bhabha calls the
"collusive sense of cultural contemporaneity"--that is,
overcoming a metaphysics of totalizing culture, which would claim
to incorporate blackness within the putative pluralism of a transcendentally
organized culture (4). Morrison's re-memory as a "stroke"--the
intervening post-colonial moment--recalls Ellison's depiction of
the "blues impulse" (78); also, this stroke is expressed
as the outrage in the Black Arts practitioners' work to construct
cultural blackness. Seen thus, blackness bears collective scars
of American history. As Morrison develops throughout Playing in
the Dark, black life in the United States is where the history of
American cultural violence can be witnessed.
Ellison makes the point (which is implicit in DuBois) that blackness
is endemic to Americanness. Conceived as improvised identity, Americanness-as-blackness
would exceed any naturalization of the transcendental citizen subject.
Broadly disseminated, such blackness could alter radically what
Mills refers to as the intersubjective ontology of race. The politics
of improvisational thinking would emphasize non-exclusivity, rather
than the liberal ideal of inclusiveness, as the emergence of otherness
reconfigures the field in which it emerges. This is to begin by
recognizing the discontinuity of humanity, recognizing that while
commonality might be negotiated, it should never be assumed.
Two examples show how specific aspects of U. S. culture have been
affected by a logic of improvisation with the outside, in each case
reconfiguring the particular field through a logic of non-exclusion
as opposed to one of totalizing inclusiveness. Both occurred during
the 1960s and '70s, when African-American struggle helped effect
major changes in thinking about what's naturally human. In The Death
of White Sociology in 1973, Joyce Ladner reflects an aspect of a
change in process. Ladner explains that once black experience was
seriously taken as valid and valued human experience, fundamental
change occurred in the social sciences. She writes that African
Americans were no longer seen as outside normalized American life,
yet also not newly included in a naturalized group of Americans.
Rather, the study of black experience per se broke open the prior
naturalization: the addition, the unforeseen voicing, reconfigured
the entire field. Houston Baker describes a similar change in the
arts, drawing an analogy to Thomas Kuhn's concept of "paradigm
shift" in the sciences (Baker 74-77). For Baker, the Black
Arts movement's development and valuation of black culture helped
create a change in the "artworld" (Arthur Danto's term),
a phenomenological shift in which objects, perception, and production
all were altered.
Such contextual shifts involve a dominant mythology's giving way
to a critical consciousness of its own mythmaking. As articulated
in terms of improvised identity, subjective blackness is always
other to the mythology of full human presence. As Alton Pollard
points out, DuBois didn't want double consciousness resolved into
assimilation: African-American life for DuBois contains a revolutionary
aspect that would oppose all tendencies toward regimentation in
American society and culture (Pollard 50). Yet once expressed, double
consciousness becomes a model for the way all subjectivity is contingent,
as every person is other to the transcendental subjectivity of what
Derrida calls white mythology. Clearly, all humanity isn't black
in what remains a significant referential sense. Yet all humanity
resists white mythology as black humanity does.
I reiterate that I use "blackness" in this paper as opposition
to the very category of the naturally human, working with a theory
of non-exclusion rather than one that articulates inclusiveness;
this avoids expressing blackness as human nature and thus maintains
the deconstruction of any notion of natural human subjectivity.
Developing the conditions of double consciousness as proper to human
life posits a ubiquitous sociocultural play in which the subject
improvises his or her position. These are conditions under which
the violence of Baraka's or Coltrane's approach to improvisation
as revolution won't seem bizarre, or contrary to what humans do,
susceptible to being judged as unnatural or inhuman. Arguably, DuBois's
exposition of double consciousness in 1903 expresses a desire for
a fully free and inclusive, civilized subjectivity, amenable to
an imagined plurality that's perhaps conceivable in terms very much
like the naturalized, universalizing category of whiteness. So toward
valuing the doubleness of improvised life, it remains important
for us to emphasize a movement always toward the trace of something
outside any possible naturalization, as played in an ensemble of
relations where the time of voices leads beyond any possible totalization
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