Skip to content

Listening to time hearing space

Those who order the world, who are world-making master time – those animals and humans who are perceived as having no world-making effects – merely occupy space…If the black appears as the antithesis of history (occupies space), the white represents the industry of progressiveness (being in time).

Sharon Patricia Holland 2012: 10

Feminist, queer and critical race theorist Sharon Patricia Holland, critiquing the seeming incompatibility between “race” and “sexuality” in contemporary cultural scholarship, challenges theories that call for an overcoming of race through the lexicon of beyond (Holland 2012: 17). Issues of “race” and “sexuality” within some historical approaches, appear to eclipse each other. This happens through, on the one hand, a predominance of unacknowledged whiteness that often does not perceive ‘white’ as a racialised category within some tenets of queer theory and, on the other hand, through histories of critical race theory and intersectionality that involve a playing down or denial of sexuality itself. Difficulties to address sexuality within some accounts of historical black feminism have occurred in part, as Evelynn M. Hammonds explains, as a resistant strategy “of black women both to negative stereotypes of their sexuality and to the material effects of those stereotypes on black women’s lives” (Hammonds 1997: 171). Addressing this legacy in The Erotic Life of Racism (2012), Holland explains that one of the biggest challenges for the next generation of feminists is how to address desire and racism within an intersectionality that “cannot account for sexuality in its framework” (Holland 2012: 22).

In an effort to address such historical erasures from queer and critical race theories Holland re-visits the question of the black/white binary through a return to the time/space split, considered as the “West’s progress narrative” (Holland 2012: 18). Thought through hegemonic orderings of time and space as a particularly progressive Western narrative Holland writes, “the black subject is mired in space and the white subject represents the full expanse of time” (Holland 2012: 18). This atomisation of black/white space/time, according to Holland, forecloses the possibility of any dialogue between these two planes to ever actually occur where “black” as “mired in space” and “white” as “the full expanse of time” , even within spaces of proximity, have never really been able to connect in any meaningful way (Holland 2012: 18). The great Western progress narrative, that we have progressed from the barbarism of a premodern age, then, is one that affords the lie of relation; that we have progressed from a time of sexualised racial domination to an era of relational equality through meaningful dialogue. The lie of our relation, of our ability to relate, is that there has been some commonality reached in time and space to enable a progression to a ‘post-racial’ world. This is the ‘lie of relation’ that Holland reveals is a “non-event” (Holland 2012: 18). In a way that accentuates her critique of progressive time, Holland asks how, in this instance, can “one move beyond a non-event?” (Holland 2012: 18). Further interrogating the notion of relation, she professes that “relation technically happens (two persons, black and white, face to face) but never occurs given the time/space split” (Holland 2012: 19). Instead, she critiques the ordering of (non)relation through tropes of proximity and familiarity that, rather than creating “a level playing field of difference”, she concedes, might actually “replicate the terms upon which difference is articulated and therefore maintained” (Holland 2012: 19). In other words, ironically, it might indeed be our assumed closeness within supposedly ‘multicultural’ Western societies which continually articulates this non-relationality. Relatedly, Holland asks, “what if our coming together (all the time) is the thing that we continue not to see as the lie of nonrelation” (Holland 2012: 19 emphasis in original)? To answer this question Holland returns to the “somewhat banal pairing otherwise known as the black/white binary” (Holland 2012: 7). This represents, in an era of assumed post-racial progression, a ‘backward movement’, one that resonates with Berlant’s call to hesitate, to delay within the impasse, to pause before assuming progression. To delay here means to stop and listen within a paradoxical space of “animated still-life”, as a time-space in which “one keeps moving, but one moves paradoxically, in the same space” (Berlant 2012: 212, 199). This return or pause as a ‘backward movement’ Holland writes, is intended to enable thinking about everyday experiences of ongoing racisms as a project “that seeks to normalise racism, to move away from “good” or “bad” assessments of its agents (black and white) and toward an understanding of its psychic life and how that life “glues a particular racial order” (Bonilla-Silva quoted in Holland 2012: 32). Further, Holland explains,

Such a return, to echo Hortense Spillers, might be ‘‘embarrassing’’ or ‘‘backward.’’ When race becomes the basis for social organisation – determining and fixing not only what we are to others, but also defining who we are – it gains an immutability that neither pro nor con can shake – it gains ontological might and becomes ‘‘too high to get over, too low to get under.’’ (Spillers quoted in Holland 2012: 7).

Considering race as the “basis for social organisation”, as is explicitly evident in the socio-musical organisation of the Devotional Collection and implicitly evident in the Her Noise Archive, might enable thinking about “how much racism demands of us, from us” (Holland 2012: 7). For it flags not only the ‘embarrassed amnesia’ that Boyce illuminates as an initial affective response to sublimated everyday racisms as a specific latency of memory, but is also contagious (transcribed Boyce HNS-2012). Feelings of embarrassment when they occur, much like shame, can highlight moments as affective flashes or triggers that can alert one to the moments when race-thinking and racism are applied particularly as, sometimes unconscious, bases of social organisation. Pausing in this time-space  that “might be embarrassing or backward” (Holland 2012: 7), sitting in it rather than always seeking progression, to move beyond, offers a way to affectively measure boundaries of racist discourse and the limits that race-thinking would seek to impose. These limits are hegemonic societal thresholds. A limit is a threshold, the rules, laws, norms and conventions by which the social world is organised and governed. Boundaries of racist discourse can be measured as thresholds of hearing; of what one can hear, of what one chooses to hear and of what one is conditioned to hear – of who listens for whom – as rules, laws, norms and conventions by which socionormative auditory perception is organised. These are the concerns that I pursue in my listening in the analysis of the Devotional Collection that follows.

Published inChapter 3 | Politics of AuditionListening to time hearing space